It’s right up there with other modern business buzzwords like authenticity, diversity, collaboration, influence, and proactive.

These words all once meant something profound, but through their repeated use, they often fall on deaf ears today.

Even if empathy is a buzzword which is losing its meaning through overuse, empathy as a practice cannot be lost. Without it, we end up alone, isolated, and ineffective, regardless of the nature of our work.

According to a couple of researchers, we have a major empathy problem on our hands within the emerging generation.

Our Empathy Problem

NPR recently reported on the work of Sara Konrath, an associate professor and researcher at Indiana University. Going back to the late 1960s, Konrath has compiled decades of studies about the rate of empathy in young people. In 2009, she found that young people today on average measured 40 percent less empathetic than the average member of Generation X.

When coupled with the work of another Indiana University researcher profiled in the NPR piece named Fritz Breithaupt, a stark picture is painted regarding the current approach to empathy.

In the context of work, politics, and relationships, we’re practicing a selective empathy which is profoundly dangerous – both to us and others. Dr. Breithaupt calls it the “Dark Side of Empathy.” In this expression of empathy, one’s actions more closely resemble tribalism rather than a universal expression of connection. Dr. Breithaupt’s research indicates that we are becoming more discriminating in whom we show empathy to, often only extending it to those we feel deserve it or those who agree with our philosophical positions.

In this view, empathy must be earned through one being viewed as worthy of it. If our expression of empathy continues to become increasingly selective, this helpful quality could become quite dangerous. It might even become weaponized – a device used to injure rather than a tool used to heal.

When we withhold empathy, we withhold value, understanding, and compassion. Instead of dignifying another person, we dehumanize them. And once we dehumanize someone, it becomes much easier to malign, marginalize, or even abuse them.

Building Common Ground by Making Empathy Available to All

In an increasingly challenging workplace, where multiple generations are present, and listening is becoming increasingly rare, empathy must be the foundation of our connection. We must seek to understand others and consider the context of their perspective and life experience.

Without empathy, we’ll label others, categorizing and treating each other with broad sweeping generalizations. Only when we embrace the nuance and texture of unique situations people face will we find the truth. When we extend empathy and listen well, we will discover the opportunities where our leadership is most urgently needed.

If NPR’s title is correct and we’re experiencing the end of empathy, the stakes are high. Our enormous world will quickly become very small when we put people into two categories – “us” and “them,” worthy and unworthy of empathy.

As leaders committed to being “Common Grounders,” we have an opportunity to cultivate empathy in our hearts and in the hearts of those we lead. This is not a selective empathy, but an indiscriminate empathy.

Every person is worthy of being heard and understood. Every person’s story matters. When someone feels heard, understood, and valued, it’s amazing how open they are to locking arms in a common cause.

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash
Research suggests a major empathy problem is brewing. Even if empathy is a buzzword losing meaning through overuse, empathy as a practice cannot be lost.