Leadership Perspectives

Empathy, not perfection

May 23, 2012

A few years ago when I was doing research for a graduate class in Emotional Intelligence, I had occasion to do research on empathy.  I ran across an interesting research study done in the medical community that showed some surprising results about doctors and empathy.

Empathy trumps perfection.  According to the results of the study, doctors whose patients perceived them to be empathetic were far less likely to be sued, even WHEN THEY CLEARLY MADE MISTAKES, than doctors who were not perceived to be empathetic by their patients.

This seems a little surprising until you think about it.  We all want to be treated well and part of how we define being treated well is being treated with empathy.  After all, empathy is the ability to recognize, and even understand the feelings of others. What could be better than having your feelings understood?

Understanding the customer’s pain.  Several years ago, a contractor installed a glass shower enclosure in the master bathroom in my home.  When he finished it, he showed me the damage that he had inadvertently done to my bathroom wall during the installation.  He was profoundly apologetic, lamented that it was a disappointment to have a big blemish on the wall right next to a beautiful new shower, and offered to return and repair the damage.  I knew he was busy and told him to forget it, it was no big deal.

And it wasn’t a big deal, but I suspect that it would have seemed like a very big deal had the installer not obviously understood from a homeowner’s perspective the pain of doing work to improve your home only to have it damaged.

Understanding the caregiver’s pain.  Years later, I experienced the effect of empathy in a profound way when I attended a remembrance service for people who had died of Mesothelioma (a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure). I told a surgeon there, who had treated someone that I had loved, that I believed that I had subsequently lost my loved one prematurely due a medication error at a different hospital.

As soon as I said it, I was sorry because I “knew” he was going to give me platitudes or defend the other hospital.  But he didn’t.  He simply said “I hate hearing that.  That had to be so painful after all you’d gone through.”  No defensiveness, just a simple validation of my feelings.

And so it is with contractors, doctors, and leaders.  When we treat people with genuine empathy, remember the original “golden rule,” and recognize and validate others’ feelings, people see us as human.  They drop their defenses and, well … often show us empathy as well.

An Inc. Magazine blog entry by Jeff Haden, that I reposted earlier this week on the Peeler Associates Leadership Development Facebook page, described 9 Qualities of Remarkable Entrepreneurs.  You guessed it – empathy made his list of qualities that distinguish remarkable entrepreneurs from good, or even great entrepreneurs.

When we, as leaders, demonstrate empathy, we show that people matter.   That changes the relationship and makes people want to follow us, not because we are perfect, but because we get them.

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