Getting to know the secret side of empathy – Working Voices

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One of the chief concerns about 21st Century society is that we are becoming more polarised, more tribal and splitting into smaller and smaller factions. For whatever reason, we in modern Western society have been thinking too much about what divides us, not what unites us, and somewhere along the way we’ve lost sight of the fact that human beings fundamentally seek the same things, albeit in different ways. 

The best leaders, in both the political and business spheres, have a natural understanding of how people tick; they have a sense of empathy When we talk about someone having empathy, we usually mean that they pick up on other people’s moods and motivations, and use that insight to adjust their own style of communication 

An example of this would be if I, as a manager, notice that someone around the table is being marginalised and take action to incorporate them more fully in the discussionI could do this by inviting the person to voice their thoughts and preventing others from interrupting once they begin. This will help them to feel part of the group, part of the process, and more committed to the outcomes of the discussion. In this way, I achieve my goal of getting more value from them. 

I suggest that empathy can be split into two types. One of these types is written about and studied a lot: the ability to understand the ways in which individuals differ. This is a crucial skill to have and so I think the research on that subject is very valuable. But it can lead to an assumption that we should always be on the lookout for difference, and that individual needs are not mutually compatible. In other words, what I think can be overlooked is the ways in which we’re all the same 

I’m talking about Human Nature: the character traits that are universal and hold us together. They work at the deepest level, underneath all the surface differences that push us apart. This second type of empathy is in many ways easier to understand and master. So I’d like to give some tips for easy wins in this area. 

The background to these ideas is the study of human drives – those impulses that set all our words and deeds in motion. What are they? 

Well, the first set of drives are physiological: things like the desire to eat, drink, breathe and sleep. The second set fall into the realm of the social/mental/emotional, and these are the ones that leaders should be interested in. It is worth remembering that these non-physical needs are the product of evolution just as much as the physical ones and they govern our behaviour just as much, if not moreSo, here are three key areas of human motivation, and how to harness them.  


Everyone wants to know that they are a fully-fledged member of the group. They also want to feel that they have status within the group. For some people this means having high status – seniority, in other words. For others it means that they have valued status – vital to the running of the group, even if not senior.

What Good Leaders Do 

  •  If it’s necessary to limit information or involvement to just a few people, be aware of the impact this has, and mitigate it by being transparent about the reasons.  
  • Find ways to recognise each person’s contribution and to give them your full attention at specific times.  
  • Watch out for how some people jostle for status within your team; it’s your job to make sure this is not detrimental to others or to your overall aims. Creating an atmosphere where everyone can feel secure will help. 
  • Make sure each person knows their own unique value to the group, and everyone else’s value too, just as you would in a sports team.


It’s money that gets most of us out of bed and into work every day, granted. But humans want more than that. They want to feel that what they do at any one moment has a purpose. If you’ve ever been set to work on a task that seemed pointless, you’ll know how demotivating and alienating that feels. 

 What Good Leaders Do 

  •  Be clear about the overall purpose of what you’re doing. Don’t just say what you want done – say why it matters. 
  • Your organisation has a mission. Relate the micro-tasks your team is working on to the overall mission. The most famous example of this (perhaps apocryphal) is of President Kennedy visiting NASA HQ and asking a janitor what he was doing. The janitor supposedly answered: ‘Putting a man on the moon’. 
  • Make sure people feel a sense of progress. The human mind is stimulated by the perception that it is getting things done.

Positive Future 

Hope is a basic human need. We’re all programmed to perceive our powers and chances of success slightly higher than they are in reality. We need this optimistic bias to motivate us in what we do.  

 What Good Leaders Do 

  •  Accentuate the positive. Acknowledge obstacles and failures but don’t dwell on them. Define success for the context you’re actually in, not against an ideal. 
  • Focus the team on the areas where it has power and control – where your collective fate is in your own hands. 
  • Sometimes targets and goals get lost because, well, ‘stuff happens’. Respond and reset so that people focus happily on the future again. 
  • Whatever the situation, there should always be shared understanding of what excellence looks like. Don’t ask your team to settle for ‘satisfactory’ outcomes. Remind the team they can always be proud they did the best that could be done. 

A leader who understands the fundamental human need for Position, Purpose and a Positive Future communicates with these things in mind continuously, strengthening morale and improving loyalty. Catering to individual difference is also necessary, but will be far easier with these basics in place. 

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