The Value of Empathy

In December of last year, I clicked on an article from Fast Company about the most empathetic companies in the world. In fact, that was the title: “These Are The Most Empathetic Companies In The World.” I remember skimming the piece made me want to launch my computer into the sun, especially after I clicked through to look at the survey and the overall methodology. It’s been more than two months now, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about just how flawed and bad the entire underlying idea is: The idea that we can measure empathy.

I think about empathy a lot, whether in a business setting or nowhere near one. What empathy looks and feels like and are those different things, whether I’m being empathetic or whether someone else is, how to be empathetic in a way that doesn’t emotionally exhaust everyone, and so on. But I don’t much like to declare how empathetic I am because I often think empathy is sort of like teenage boys and sex: The more a teenage boy talks about how much sex he’s having, the more likely it is he’s having none at all.

So the idea of – if you will forgive this quote — “Empathy as not a soft nurturing value but a hard commercial tool,” made me really mad. So did the concept of “empathetic companies,” whose empathy quotient was determined by surveys through Glassdoor and Survation plus data collected on Twitter. Even typing this now makes me want to throw my hands up and yell a lot, but that won’t get us anywhere.

Instead I want to share what’s so cockamamie about this entire thing. Or maybe part of what’s cockamamie — there’s so much to say about this topic, enough to fill articles and books and talks for days, so for now I’ll focus on the heart of it.

What is empathy, anyway?

In the simplest of terms, empathy is a feeling.

Let’s stop and think about this before we get any further. Empathy is a feeling. If the klaxons hadn’t already been sounding when you read “empathetic company,” I hope they are now. I don’t even mean in the “corporations are people too!” way, where you roll your eyes and go “companies can’t have feelings.”

No, I’m talking about something really basic and straightforward. For a company to value empathy, it has to have a culture in which feelings – at work, in the workplace, in a business setting – are not only acceptable but encouraged. You can’t foster empathy or be an “empathetic company” if you’ve got a culture in which feelings are not okay at some fundamental level.

Even more than that, the culture has to be one in which emotional labor is not only recognized but valued. It’s hard enough for people to recognize and acknowledge emotional labor in their personal lives, let alone value it! How do you do that at work? How does a corporation do that?

The answer is not “create a metric.” The answer is “find a way to value empathy without needing a metric to measure it.”

Soft skills and emotional labor aren’t valued

One of the things I find most interesting about the transformation of empathy into corporate buzzword and measurable tool is the way this tells us what’s really at work.

As nearly anyone can tell you, things like empathy, emotional labor, or simply being good at dealing with people are considered “soft skills.” When I’ve brought this up on Twitter, people have taken the opportunity to remind me that anything sort of holistic or “you know, we can’t measure it” is a soft skill, and anything that’s overt and quantifiable is a hard skill. And sure, this language plays into the idea that some things are amorphous, squishy, or in some way hard to delineate, while other things are specific, rigorous, task-based.

But language like “soft” and “hard” is incredibly loaded and gendered. Lots of women are exceptional at “hard skills,” and there are certainly men who excel at “soft skills.” But softness is, at least in recent tradition, considered a more feminine trait, while hardness is masculine. Emotional labor is women’s work.

The world of business is historically a masculine environment, where an employee left feelings at the door and came in to do non-emotional, highly visible compensated labor. Believe me, I know this: At my first full time job out of college, when I had a boss who occasionally threw things near my head and told me how I paled in comparison to my male counterpart, the two most senior women in my department hauled me into a conference room to chide me for crying at work.

Taking empathy and turning it into a number, a metric, a hard tool is a way of saying that in order to value something, we have to strip it of softness, feelings, and any sense that it’s a touchy-feely-can’t-exactly-measure-it-on-an-employee-evaluation sort of thing. But to do that means it’s no longer empathy. And if you can only engage with empathy in terms of its market value, then it’s not something you value in the larger sense.

Feelings are difficult, and that’s okay

Like a lot of feelings, empathy is often very difficult. Having empathy for another person, whether a coworker or a customer or a manager or your mom or a stranger or even someone on Twitter, requires you to be be open and receptive to their experience and feelings. It often means you have to be uncomfortable, because you’re taking in feelings you don’t like or want in order to acknowledge and understand them.

This can be hugely difficult. It’s why so many people immediately offer a solution when someone says “I’m depressed” or “This terrible thing happened and I’m devastated.” A solution is a way of saying, “I’d like to solve this for you as soon as possible, because your feelings are making me uncomfortable and I need that to end.” Solutions and advice are incredibly valuable, but you can’t come up with either one if you haven’t listened to the person, and they won’t be well received if the person feels like they’re not being heard.

And you know what? Sometimes empathy is exhausting! Where do you draw the boundary? When? With whom? Will people be empathetic to you when you need it? How do you recognize the times when being empathetic means you can’t in fact help solve another person’s problem? That last one is especially tricky with empathy at work, because most of us don’t have jobs where we sit around feeling our feels all day and helping other people feel their feels. We’re at work to make things or do things or solve things, and sometimes empathizing with a colleague or customer doesn’t mean you can also give them a solution.

Empathetic people can engage in compassionate acts. Companies can create environments where people are able to be more empathetic, or to learn what that means. Companies can support compassionate acts and designs and more. A company can encourage empathy but it can’t enforce it.

Stop trying to measure empathy.

Stop trying to turn it into a quantifiable metric based on data that doesn’t reveal actual empathy. Stop taking the heart out of empathy, the emotional labor that has marked it as soft and rendered it invisible. All of this reveals an incredible lack of empathy, for your employees, your customers, your people.

Instead of trumpeting a meaningless number, turn inward. Look at whether your corporate culture is a place in which empathy and compassion can flourish. Recognize that emotional labor has value, and reward it accordingly.