In my previous blog, I shared some insights into Jamil Zaki’s research and writing on empathy,  our ability to build our capacity for empathy, and  the observation that we were seeing his findings come to life in conversations about the impact of race in America this year. Many of you have reached out to let us know that you have also been part of conversations that show a new level of empathy for those who experience the impact of racism.

If we “zoom out” from these conversations happening in workplaces and communities across the country, though, it’s hard to look at the overall tone of discourse in our country and not feel disheartened. Taking this broader view, it seems that the decline in overall empathy is only accelerating. A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Review, showed that the average level of “empathetic concern” for others declined by 48 percent between 1979 and 2009. How much further might it have dropped in the last decade?

If our individual capacity for empathy is showing up in some conversations, why isn’t it having a bigger impact on our public discourse?  Zaki and others have found some possible causes in their research on intergroup empathy. These findings are particularly  relevant with regard to the divisiveness in the United States today where political parties have become more homogenous and political affiliation is showing up in every aspect of our lives — often influencing the choice of where to shop, where to worship, and even what neighborhood to live in. Strengthening the echo chamber even further,  social media algorithms ensure that we hear from people who share our perspective much more than those who have a different view. But it’s those differing views that allow us to gain a greater understanding of others, and that are especially instructive for Values Based Leaders seeking to build their capacity to empathize with others in an increasingly divided country and world.

Are there groups of people that you empathize with more readily?

The research on intergroup empathy focuses on how we distribute our empathy.  It is in our nature to identify ourselves with a group, our “ingroup.”  How ever you define your ingroup, another way to think about empathy is to consider the difference between your empathy for your ingroup and your outgroup.  Emile Bruneau of MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences has studied this difference, which he terms “Parochial Empathy.”  In his research in group conflicts, such as political clashes, it’s not the level of overall empathic concern that matters most.  In these situations, our choice to respond to others with kindness and compassion is driven more by whether we identify them as part of our ingroup or our outgroup.  Our empathy for each group acts almost like a force field, and it’s the relative difference in strength that drives our response.  If the difference is smaller, we are more likely to respond with kindness even to someone from the outgroup, because we are able to be moved by our empathy to that group without being pulled back by the empathy to our own group.  If the difference is large, our empathy for our ingroup may pull us away from responding with kindness to the outgroup.

It’s this empathy gap that helps to explain why researchers found would-be suicide bombers in the middle east  rated highly on scales of overall empathy, even as they were planning to take the lives of those they saw as their outgroup.  Their empathy for their ingroup, and their way of thinking about who was “in” their group and who was not, overwhelmed their general empathetic concern.

In studies with avid British football fans, researchers found that they could influence how their subjects defined their “ingroup.”  In one scenario they tested empathy toward opposing team fans after having subjects write about why they loved their own team.  In the next scenario, they had the subjects write about why they loved the sport soccer.  The level of empathy they demonstrated toward the fans of the opposing team were much higher when they had been primed to think of themselves as soccer fans, rather than fans of a single team.

Pause to think about this and consider, as leaders working to cultivate more empathy, it’s important to remember that the way we identify ourselves in relation to others can impact our empathy:

  • Consider how you may be defining your ingroup. It’s natural to want to “find your tribe” and be with others who share similar values.  Recognizing who “your people” are while also maintaining a sense of connection to all people, or to all living things, can help to build your overall capacity for empathy.
  • Recognize the natural tendency to distribute more of our empathy to those we relate closely to, then make a conscious choice. Work to cultivate empathy for those outside your group by being open and curious about their lived experiences.   Ask your neighbor who votes differently than you to share their story.  You don’t have to agree with them to feel empathy – and feeling empathy for others doesn’t lessen the power of your own perspective. 

Leaders in teams and organizations have another powerful tool to help build empathy in the norms they uphold.  Zaki’s research has reinforced the power of intentionally describing the culture you wish to build through consistent and common language, and through the behavior that you recognize and reward.  In his research, organizations with empathy and kindness clearly articulated as a norm had more empathetic leaders -and organizations with more empathetic leaders were more collaborative and resilient.

Values Based Organizations articulate these norms through their values.  Organizational Values are powerful tools – especially when they are used to describe clear behaviors that are expected of all employees, and modeled by all leaders.  When empathy has a place in those behaviors, organizations are not only more successful, but they may even help make the world a kinder place.


Sharon Amoss

Sharon Amoss

Sharon’s approach to leadership is centered on encouraging others to discover and connect with their most true, authentic selves. She is guided by personal core values of justice, compassion, and growth, and motivated by a vision of a better and wiser world where each of us are free to express and contribute our unique gifts. She seeks to build inclusive communities across all facets of her work and life.

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