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We often tend to see the same people. This circle of companionship likely varies depending on whether we are at work or home, but we probably see most of the same people each day. The lack of variety in our social and professional bubbles may reduce the empathy we have for others because we are not engaging with people outside of our safe, comfortable norms. We may not meet or speak with people who have different viewpoints, beliefs and passions. How can we help others thrive if we do not understand what they need?
Research studies have found that women tend to be more aware of the emotional state of others compared to men. In the brain, the striatum is thought to handle cognitive empathy. Researchers found a certain genetic variant on chromosome 3 increased cognitive empathy, but only in women who had the genetic change.
Men with the variant did not score higher than control groups. While there is very likely a genetic component to empathy, interpersonal awareness, or the ability to understand what people are feeling or needing, our upbringing and personal experiences also impact these factors.1 It doesn’t mean that people who lack the gene can’t be empathetic, but it might mean they have to work harder and be more aware of how they say and do things.
Fortunately, our brains exhibit plasticity, meaning we do have the capacity to change. No matter our gender, we can still become more empathetic and intuitive about the condition of others if we want to train our brain to think that way. One way to increase empathy is to move beyond our circle or bubble of daily life.
Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.
Most of us have a bubble or circle of people with whom we interact. Many of them may enjoy the same activities we do, or have the same beliefs about religion or politics. These social circles may make us less empathetic because everyone in our sphere lives similarly to ourselves. We don’t really experience extremes when we live in these homogenous circles.
Leaders without empathy don’t really understand what their employees’ lives are like. While giant corporations like Amazon are pushing higher wages, Jeff Bezos makes millions of dollars an hour. On July 20, 2020, he made USD 545 million an hour, or USD 13 billion on that single day.2 The average worker would not make this amount with thousands of years of labour, so it’s hard to imagine the extremely wealthy being empathetic with people who work for them.
Leaders should take a walk in someone else’s shoes every so often. They should visit with their janitors, they should see what happens in the mailroom, and they should know as many people as possible by name. It is easier to be more intuitive about your employees if you know something about them. Taking time to visit and chat and ask questions with those you work with is a worthy endeavour.
Getting outside your circle of norms will help you become more agile as you expand your leadership skills. If you use social media, follow or connect with people who don’t look or think like you. Be open minded and courteous. We all have so much to learn and teach each other, but our lack of empathy so often inhibits this transfer of knowledge and ideas.
Being able to capture what people want isn’t always easy. While we know genetics plays a major role in how empathetic we naturally tend to be, we can improve with practice.
Ask yourself questions about the people around you:
There isn’t any rocket science behind empathy. We all have the capacity to become a neuroleader or a brain-friendly leader, but some people may need to work harder to train their brains to think differently.
We should find the time to talk with others. We should also put away our phones and not mentally write emails or memos when we are visiting with them. Unless we are luckily born into wealth, we typically have modest beginnings. Remembering who we are even when our fortunes rise is important to influence others to follow our visions and dreams.
Can you sense what people want in most situations?
Founder & CEO
About my Brain Institute
Scientist, educator, author, speaker, coach, award-winning leadership specialist, filmmaker and creator of the i4 Neuroleader Model & Methodology.
Silvia's scientific background and curiosity about the human brain led her to a decade long journey of research into optimal brain functioning and the application of neuroscience in leadership and daily life. Her past and current roles have uniquely prepared her for the current undertaking, that of leadership activist & change agent.
Silvia Damiano founded The About my Brain Institute in 2009, with the purpose of democratising leadership & neuroscience. She has a passionately held belief, that leaders in our 21st century global economy and their organisations must radically change long-held ideas of what constitutes effective leadership
In her ground-breaking books ‘Leadership is Upside Down’, ‘Brain-Friendly Leadership’ and the 2018 documentary ‘Make Me A Leader’, Silvia provides both compelling evidence and explores the importance of leadership in our personal and professional lives and what it takes to develop the human behind the leader.
Silvia has worked in different countries, across many industries, helping teams and organisations improve business performance. Silvia’s clients have described her as a passionate, dynamic, a highly experienced speaker and master facilitator on the topics of Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Change, Neuroleadership & Engagement.
Silvia is passionate about leaving a legacy of well-rounded leaders who can act and decide in a way that better serves humanity. Her clients include Microsoft, Australian Stock Exchange, NSW Government, VISA, Fuji Xerox and Manpower amongst many other global companies.