The Value of Empathy


By Gail Cameron

As a child growing up in South Africa in the apartheid era, I only came to fully understand the depravity of racial injustice in the late seventies, when as a lecturer at FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists), I could begin to understand the pain and suffering of students in my class.  Always under threat by the security policy, the students would retreat into the basement to sing Nkosi Sikele.  

As a young adult I experienced the miracle of Mandela and remember (as I was travelling to Cape Town on the day that he was released from Victor Verster Prison), the feelings as we stopped on a bridge to witness the Mandela cavalcade pass underneath.  However, it was only when I began my business, coaching leaders, in the early nineties, that I could interact with and understand in a deep and profound way the needs and dreams of my black clients. Only then could I begin to understand the real meaning of empathy.

We all know that racial injustice, religious intolerance, hostility among people of different backgrounds and extreme poverty fuel hatred, aggression and violence.  However, when empathy can be experienced, if deep understanding can be enhanced, all this hostility will diminish greatly.

Entrepreneurs like Mary Gordon of Canada have developed a programme called Roots of Empathy to promote empathy in children aged five to thirteen.  Participating children watch and interact with an infant over a period of months, learning how to understand what the baby feels and to relate those emotions to their own.  By finding the humanity in the baby, they learn to find it in themselves and each other.  It goes without saying, that if more of this could be conducted even at junior and senior school level, the debilitating effects and accompanying brutality of bullying could be hugely ameliorated.

Which brings me to why empathy is crucial for leadership.  Dr. George Kholrieser well known author and hostage negotiator addresses the principle of secure-based leadership in his latest book “Care To Dare” 

At a recent Neuro-Leadership Summit in New York last year, Kholrieser partnered with Dr. Naomi Eisenberger, a well-known social neuroscientist from UCLA to address the question on what happens in the brain of a leader who cares.

80% of employees are driven by fear and kept hostage by somebody or themselves.  Being a hostage speaks to lack of personal power.  When we experience the lack of personal power, the brain experiences a lack of safety and primal survival responses prevent the brain from working in an optimal way.

Resonant leaders are secure leaders that provide a sense of protection, give a sense of comfort and offer a source of energy and inspiration to explore, take risks and bring about innovation and effective solutions.

A leader will only be able to recognise social pain in someone they have related to.  All the more reason for leaders to connect with their followers.

Social intelligence, a new neuro-science that only evolved in 2003, is the crucial competence for recognising the para and meta aspects of communication in order to enable appropriate responses.  The very important issue to understand is that social isolation or rejection is recorded in the brain in the same place where we experience physical pain and will produce some of the highest levels of cortisol of any stress stimulation. Dr. Eisenberger’s research has shown that studies conducted on Tylenol, a drug to reduce pain, fever, cold and flu symptoms can reduce hurt feelings.

During a conflict situation, the emotional bond is broken and social pain is experienced.  Helping leaders to understand that social pain activates fear and disengagement, will go a long way in developing effective strategies for influencing and effectiveness in the workplace.

What’s in it for the leader?

Besides creating an empowered and effective workforce, an empathetic leader benefit personally.  Eisenberger’s research has shown caring about someone activates the brain regions associated with pleasure, the ventral striatum and the Septal area.

Giving support and caring not only activates the brain’s pleasure-seeking areas, but also reduces stress and its accompanying Systolic Blood pressure drastically.

Empathy is no longer regarded as a soft skill, as neuroscience has proven the health benefits and impact on high performing teams.  With the Resonant Leader, self-managed and self-motivated teams, will stretch and reach.

For more information contact My Pocket Coach or call us on (011) 781-1444