Recently, in a graduate school course focusing on emotional intelligence and critical thinking in leadership, I used a powerful Ted Talk by Sam Richards titled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.” The talk challenges us to empathize with Iraqi insurgents and apply the lessons of empathy to our lives in more ordinary ways. The talk is controversial and compelling. Two lessons emerged from our subsequent discussion: 1) many can not distinguish between the concepts of empathy and sympathy, and 2) a lack of empathy is an obstacle to effective leadership.
Empathy describes the vicarious experiencing of another’s feelings. Sympathy implies harmony or agreement of feelings. These are distinctly different concepts. It’s possible to understand the feelings of another person while still rejecting the actions manifested by those feelings.
Why is this distinction important? With an understanding of the feelings that underlie actions, we are able to interact in a way that may alter those actions in a lasting way. This use of empathy as a tool of organizational health can work at all levels. Empathy can clear the way for productive and harmonious working relationships throughout an organization. Leaders who model empathy and work to align the feelings, beliefs, and experiences of team members with organization mission, vision, and values have the greatest chance of achieving excellence.