Is empathy a key skill of the future?

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I am reading the book Hit Refresh by Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. He covers quite a bit in the book, ending with a discussion of artificial intelligence, which is the reason I bought the book. Early on, however, Nadella talks about the discovered importance to him of empathy and it got me thinking about the future of leadership and HR.

Empathy defines empathy as “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.” Its root words are the Greek word empátheia meaning affection,  and the word páschein meaning to suffer.

It has long been considered in American business that there was no place for empathy, at least not on the leadership level. In business biographies of J.P. Morgan, Carnegie, and Rockefeller, it is doubtful you will find chapters on their use of empathy. But as business has evolved, along with legislation, we have seen more and more calls for empathetic practices. We see it in legislation. I think the root of the FMLA and the ACA, and the proposed Workflex in the 21st Century Act is empathy.

More leaders expressing empathy

In his book, Nadella talks about his personal approach to leadership. He says:

My personal philosophy and my passion, developed over time and through exposure t many different experiences, is to connect new ideas with a growing sense of empathy for other people. Ideas excite me. Empathy grounds and centers me.

After relating his some of his life experience with disabilities, discrimination, people in developing countries he goes on to say:

My passion is to put empathy at the center of everything I pursue – from the products we launch, to the new markets we enter, to the employees, customers, and partners we work with.

Emotional Intelligence

According to Psychology Today, emotional intelligence is defined as:

…the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. It is generally said to include three skills: emotional awareness; the ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problem solving; and the ability to manage emotions, which includes regulating your own emotions and cheering up or calming down other people.

More and more in HR literature and training, emotional intelligence is being identified as critically important. The SHRM certification material says that “Without EI, the behaviors needed to support a global mindset or diversity in the workplace- EMPATHY, cooperation, willingness to learn about and accept differences – are practically impossible.” (My emphasis in caps.)

Empathy is a critical part of the leadership and HR in today’s world. More needs to be done to make sure that organizations demonstrate empathy as a core value. I know it has not been my strong suit in the past, but as things have changed I have come to recognize the value to business and to my personal life of the value of empathy. We need to work on instilling this in our business life and making sure that leaders are trained in the importance and value of empathy.

Article written by Mike Haberman

Mike Haberman

The Value of a Devil’s Advocate in HR

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In the Roman Catholic Church, from the year 1000 until 1978, fewer than 450 people were canonized as saints. In 1978, Pope John Paul II removed the use of a promotor fidei whose job it was to question why that individual should be made a saint. As a result, in the 38 years since 1978, 450 people have been canonized. I learned this as I was reading a section on confirmation bias in the book The Wisest One in the Room, which I have referred to before.

A human condition

According to Gilovich and Ross, we as human have a tendency to look for evidence that confirms what we believe. They say “The more you want a proposition to be true, the more inclined you are to look for evidence that supports it.” I think we saw good evidence of this in the Presidential election, on both sides. It is called confirmation bias, and it is a mistake often made in the interview process. It can be offset with the knowledge that it exists; in fact, it is one of the major tenets of behavioral interviewing.


I was taught behavioral interviewing by Paul Green back in the 1980’s. In his training he talked about interviewer errors and the fact that we all have a tendency, if we happen to like something about a candidate, or dislike something about a candidate, to look for evidence that confirms our initial impression. Paul said that to be effective and counteract this tendency you had to look for “disconfirming” evidence. You had to be your own “devil’s advocate.” You had to ask yourself “Why am I liking this person so much?” This gave you the chance to have a more balanced view of the candidate. I found it to be excellent advice.

Why not a Devil’s Advocate in the HR department?

If each HR department had a promotor fidei, or Devil’s advocate, it might help you make consequential decisions with more confidence. Rather than looking for evidence on why a decision should be made you could ask the question on why a decision should NOT be made, or why a product should NOT be purchased, or why a person should NOT be fired. As Gilovich and Ross say:

What you need to do is to slow down and consciously look for information that challenges whatever proposition you are evaluating, especially if the proposition conforms to your current view or preferences.”

So the next time you are faced with a decision where the answer just seems too easy pull that little devil out of your pocket and put it to use.

Article written by Mike Haberman

Mike Haberman