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Advice on Empathy Abounds. What Do You Do When it Still Feels Impossible?

The September-October issue of Harvard Business Review features two articles that at first glance might not seem related. One is about overcoming the temptation to allow power to corrupt your leadership. The other is on improving the ways companies go about helping employees manage their unconscious bias.

I’ve written before about the negative effects power can have on the most well-intentioned leaders. And I agree with the HBR authors, Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro, that one way to combat the temptations is to cultivate humility. Indeed, humility, honesty and heart combine to form my 3H-Core for leading with transfluence.

The other solution the authors suggest involves cultivating empathy, and that’s where it connects with the article on unconscious bias training. Those authors, Francesca Gino and Katherine Coffman, make the case that conventional methods for UB training don’t work because they focus too heavily on raising awareness and not enough on managing biases and changing behavior. One way they suggest doing that: Create empathy.

Gino and Coffman say companies can nurture empathy by offering more opportunities for employees to role play or mentally take on the perspective of others and by holding more small group discussions that allow people to learn about each others’ views and perspectives.

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Battilana and Casciaro approached empathy more from the perspective of individuals. Their point is that by cultivating empathy, you maintain a proper perspective about your positional power. They say you can cultivate empathy as a leader by immersing yourself in the details of other people’s jobs, by making time to listen to their stories, and by getting out of your bubble and spending time in communities where you wouldn’t normally spend time. They also recommend that companies can combat self-focus and cultivate empathy by creating structures that build an awareness of how everyone in the organization depends on each other for shared success.

While all of this is solid advice, it falls short in at least one regard: It doesn’t acknowledge that empathy is not only hard, but sometimes it’s downright impossible. Real empathy, as I write about in a bonus chapter to my book Transfluence, involves the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. So what do you do when you follow all of that good HBR advice and still can’t understand or share someone’s feelings?

The answer, I believe, is an approach to empathy that includes active compassion. I offer some ideas on that in the bonus chapter, Rethinking Empathy: How to Share Support When You Don’t Share Another’s Experience. I hope you’ll check it out. As you can tell by the fact that empathy shows up so often as a solution to organizational and leadership challenges – and not just in HBR – getting it right can have an enormous positive impact on your influence.

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