The Empathy Imperative: Is It Real?

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about the importance of businesses, political candidates, and government leaders showing empathy. Have you been hearing the same thing? I’m intrigued by the notion that as a people, Americans aren’t empathetic enough; somehow we’ve lost our empathy for others. This effect has impacted individuals and businesses and it has become a topic of interest recently with the people protesting racial injustice in cities across the country – and the polarization within the American public around issues of racial justice and equity. The pandemic has also contributed to the interest in empathy given the refusal by many Americans to practice social distancing and wear face coverings.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article talking about the “Empathy Economy.” According to columnist Mario Carrasco, “(The empathy economy) touches corporate leadership, culture, governance and ethics, brand perception and book value. Empathy has become as essential to business success as the products and services a company offers.” The author sees a direct link between the empathy economy and diversity and inclusion. He points out that not only is embracing diversity and inclusion morally the right thing to do for your organization, it is also key to its success. It is imperative from both a moral and a business perspective. I definitely recommend reading Carrasco’s column. He does a good job of backing up his assertions with data.

Empathy was also a hot topic at the 2020 Democratic National Convention earlier this month, particularly when Michelle Obama criticized President Trump and many Americans for not displaying empathy. She asked Americans to choose empathy over hatred and division. Below is a transcription of that section of her speech.

“Empathy: that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes; the recognition that someone else’s experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don’t stand in judgment. We reach out because, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is not a hard concept to grasp. It’s what we teach our children.

But right now, kids in this country are seeing what happens when we stop requiring empathy of one another. They’re looking around wondering if we’ve been lying to them this whole time about who we are and what we truly value.

They see people shouting in grocery stores, unwilling to wear a mask to keep us all safe. They see people calling the police on folks minding their own business just because of the color of their skin. They see an entitlement that says only certain people belong here, that greed is good, and winning is everything because as long as you come out on top, it doesn’t matter what happens to everyone else. And they see what happens when that lack of empathy is ginned up into outright disdain.

They see our leaders labeling fellow citizens enemies of the state while emboldening torch-bearing white supremacists. They watch in horror as children are torn from their families and thrown into cages, and pepper spray and rubber bullets are used on peaceful protestors for a photo-op.

Sadly, this is the America that is on display for the next generation. A nation that’s underperforming not simply on matters of policy but on matters of character. And that’s not just disappointing; it’s downright infuriating because I know the goodness and the grace that is out there in households and neighborhoods all across this nation.” (Michelle Obama’s 2020 DNC Speech)

What do you think? What about empathy and how it relates to healthcare organizations and how they define their priorities? Where do we stand on the empathy spectrum? Do most healthcare organizations embrace empathy as a core value? And, how can we support healthcare workers’ well-being and create work environments that healthy and positive? I would think that one of the keys to having an empathetic team of healthcare providers would be to support their emotional well-being. It’s an interesting topic to explore. I definitely recommend checking out The Empathy Effect, a book by Helen Riess, a physician, empathy researcher, and the director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Harvard Medical School. She is also the founder and chief scientific officer at Empathetics, which offers empathy training across industries.

In closing, is empathy one of the things we should prioritize? Is all of this focus on empathy appropriate? Let me know what you think.

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