Not Just Another Post on Empathy


Image Source: Grammarly

Our LinkedIn feeds are drowning us with activist slogans on empathy and inclusion at work. Some of us might even find it overdone. But what exactly is empathy? Is there a neuro-psychological explanation of what is going on in the mind and body?

My one-on-one conversations with clients and professional friends reveal that “empathy” is still very much a platitude. A quick dipstick reveals that people feel pressured to hide or suppress their “empathy” in the workplace, to be viewed as “competent". Or else they find colleagues and bosses approaching empathy with caution. So all those LinkedIn posts are not doing their job !

There is also an expectation that the woman leader or colleague will play the role of the "agony aunt". There are gender perceptions about empathy which are strongly embedded.

I recently got an opportunity to present some Applied Neuroscience based perspective about how empathy arises in our brains at the Women In Payments ASEAN Symposium. It is a remarkable platform and please check out their activities and focus area here, in case you are curious.


About Empathy, Empathic Distress, and Compassion

The biological and behavioral sciences intersect to give enough evidence that empathy is the most natural phenomenon for human beings to experience. In this discussion, we will deliberately stay out of "genderizing" empathy. Let us understand the claim that empathy is a natural phenomenon and an essential aspect of being human. VS Ramachandran, Director for Brain and Cognition at University of California, San Diego, pointed out in 2009-10 that human beings exhibit pro-social behavior by using their “mirror neuron” system. The mirror neuron system not only copies the motor actions of other people but also simulates the internal emotional state of the other. More when you watch this TED talk. Mirror neurons were first talked about by a scientist called Rizzolatti in 1992 in Italy when he and his team had this discovery on apes.

Subsequently, many pieces of research have been undertaken by behavioral scientists to understand empathy from the neurosciences and social psychology point of view. These neurons are found in mammals such as apes, dogs, whales, and elephants. Many social scientists explain that it is the most pro-social nervous circuit as it helps the herd survive. “Empathy is a core socio-emotional skill. Those lacking cognitive empathy have trouble understanding what others are thinking or feeling (as with autism spectrum disorders), while those lacking affective empathies have trouble feeling for others (as with sociopathology). As such, the fostering of empathy is important to each of us individually as well as to society, and a worthy target for design.” Peters, D., & Calvo, R.A. (2014). Compassion vs. empathy. Interactions, 21, 48 - 53.

The important thing to note is that “affective empathy” creates an emotional mirror response in the empathizer. There is another term that we need to consider - empathic distress. A paper by Peters and Calvo talks about empathy, empathic distress, and compassion, making a distinction between these emotional states. Empathic distress is the emotional charge that one feels when one is in close contact with another who is going through a distressing situation. It does not necessarily lead to action ( Also refer to the image above) Empathic distress arises out of “primitive emotional contagion” where people catch the emotional state of the other and the emotions therein (The Social Neuroscience of Empathy by Decety and Ickes, 2009). Empathic distress is when the empathizer experiences personal distress on connecting with the other who may be distressed. She herself then feels anxiety and this may lead to behaviors such as avoidance, low mood and discomfort in the empathizer. The empathizer usually feels better if she does something in order to address her distress. When this emotion translates to sympathy, compassion, or altruism, with a motivation for some action, it helps both the empathizer and the subject to feel better.

Image Source: Peters, D., & Calvo, R.A. (2014). Compassion vs. empathy. Interactions, 21, 48 - 53.

Just feeling empathy may or may not lead to any constructive outcome. Attaching the motivation to help and doing an action eases the ‘empathic distress’ in the brain, leading to sympathy, compassion, and altruism. Compassion is an area of great interest to neuroscientists. Compassion is viewed positively whereas pure empathy may or may not help the cause of the empathizer and certainly not the one in distress. Neuroscientists have also studied in fMRI experiments that compassion and empathy fire up different parts of the brain. So, the emotion is certainly not the same within ourselves.

Making the distinction between empathy, empathic distress, and compassion helps us to explain to ourselves and others our emotional states. This in turn promotes pro-social behavior.

About genders.

In our evolutionary history, women have been expected to play the role of the nurturer showing empathy to her own family and kin members. Hence they may find it easier to show their nurturing side to people from their in-groups. On the other hand, males through socialisation, early age bullying and gender games prevalent in adolescence are pre-wired to suppress their empathetic side. However, men can be very empathetic, compassionate and altruistic. This analysis is complex and we are not getting into it here. It is important however to be "gender smart" and not stereotypical about empathy.

Here is another video by Dr. Dan Siegel, acclaimed neuroscientist, and psychologist, explaining how the mirror neuron works in the mind.


How does this matter in organizations?

Tina and Ana work in the marketing team. Their boss is Bob. Tina meets Ana for coffee. She is a little anxious. Her body language suggests something is off. Ana, as she is speaking to Tina, gets this. Ana checks in with Tina and Tina breaks down. She is distressed about Bob’s behavior and bullying ways. He expects her to work late hours and will not hear of any breaks. Tina is not having a great time on her personal front also.

Ana works with Bob too and after listening to Tina finds it hard to work with him. This is "empathic distress". Unaddressed, it will lead to the relationship between Bob and Tina getting worse.

If one member of a team is feeling something and is regularly in connection with another member, that person is bound to feel the disturbed emotions of the latter.

Some leaders have told me that they find themselves playing the role of the "emotional mop”. Unattended empathic distress can lead to emotional stress which in turn blows up in some way or the other, disrupting the normal working environment. People in organizations do try to keep to themselves as much as they can.

We are human beings coming into the workplace to give our services to meet the overall objective of the organization which in turn looks after us. Emotions arise and ebb in the everyday business of life, creating distress which gets passed around. Addressing them is important and has a role to play in the mental wellness of the individual and the team.

We also know from neuroscience that unaddressed stress hampers the productivity of individuals. It can lead to mental breakdowns, anxiety, and all kinds of dysfunctionalities. This is not to say that organisations are the only entities responsible for one’s stress and distress levels. There is agency to be exercised by every individual working in a system for their own mental and emotional state. This also needs to be supported by the environment in which people work.


Why are these findings so relevant now?

Diversity, inclusion, and belongingness are buzzwords today. So is mental health. The human being is at the centre of these discussions. The human being is productive and thriving only under certain conditions. Emotional safety is one of them. It is time to do away with an archaic notion of what “emotion” really means.

Here is a talk by acclaimed Applied Neuroscience professor, Dr. Paul Brown on emotions in the workplace, which you may find interesting.

Covid disrupted a lot of things, made remote working normal, got us to experience hybrid, and thus introduced at a mass level the idea that we need not box our lives to be productive.

Once the boundaries blurred, it also introduced the notion that people want to be more of “themselves” at work. Teams need not be so mechanistic, and task-focused. People, men and women, have started to care about their quality of living.

In this climate, recognizing what makes us essentially human is critical. Emotions are not our enemies but our friends. They are a carrier signal to our brains to tell us what we value. We can regulate them but if we suppress them, we create stress in our system and dampen our motivation.

When people interact, physically or virtually, there is bound to be mirror neurons at play and natural empathy. So do we channelise it into constructive emotions or do we suppress it ? It depends on the context, doesn't it ? This is a point of reflection and no easy answers. What can one do, really ? What can colleagues do ? What should team leaders do ?

This is one of the most detailed newsletters from Rhizome Learning but perhaps one of the most heartfelt. A way of transforming my “empathic distress” into motivated action.

As 2023 be around the corner, I wish everyone exciting times ahead. Empathy and empathic distress will always be there, but may we be able to find more avenues for channelizing it into something meaningful. Practicing more compassion changes our brain structure and we can start with compassion towards ourselves.

And one more thing, if you found this newsletter informative do share it with your professional colleagues to build a case of empathy ….oops.. compassion in the workplace.


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