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Empathy as Morally Valuable Thing

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Our culture in the United States of America has been notable as a combination of various histories. Yet, sadly, all of those histories are not still respected and loved. The United States is becoming known for being intolerable of certain races, genders, and lifestyles. As a psychology student, I am able to look at this world with a sense of fairness and empathy. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” by Webster’s dictionary. In other terms, empathy means being able to think from multiple perspectives in order to consider how everyone is affected by something. Being empathetic means feeling with others, not for them. The key difference here is that when someone feels with someone else, they have the ability to put themselves in the other person’s position to better understand why they may be acting a certain way. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is an important thing to do in order have a positive effect on your own environment. Viewing people in a new light can help to build empathy. One field of psychology that I would consider working in would be Industrial/Organizational psychology. In this field, empathy building can help people in any corporate environment reduce stereotyping and discrimination, and maximize workplace productivity.

Unfortunately, we have a long history of discrimination in our work force. Race has always been an issue in the workplace, due to the unfortunately slow pace of white Americans adjusting to the equality that Africans Americans were rightly given in the 1960’s. Gender equality was an issue previously because of the difference in what men and women were allowed to do in the community. And currently, popularly discriminated against groups include, along with the prior two, Hispanics, LGBT members, Muslims, Christians, and many other minority groups. Although these groups mostly have mostly gained their “equality”, they are still not treated fairly in the workplace. When it comes to empathy, it is extremely important to notice the privileges that we have, and actively recognize them. This helps us to be able to view others in the same light, and respect them based on the premise that we would want the same respect given to us. The discriminated groups vary, but we see a repeating pattern: lack of empathy. Without the capabilities to be empathetic towards our coworkers and employees, we can only expect happiness and respect to plummet, thus decreasing productivity.

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In any field, people will be inevitably coming together to work for one common good. However, it is unfortunate that people cannot always work together, putting aside that they are different. Many offices and workplaces use a form of “diversity training” as a building block for empathy. In these training sessions, workplaces hire psychologists or social workers to help their employees build empathy for each other. In one study done in 2011, the international council on hotel, restaurant, and institutional education (ICHRI) tested the effectiveness of diversity training exercises. Participants were randomly assigned as a “manager” or an “employee.” The managers were provided with a recipe and instructions in English, and the managers’ employees were provided with the recipe and instruction in an abstract, non-English language. In addition, participants’ empathy mediated the relationship between the perspective-taking training and attitudes, such that perspective taking induced empathy, resulting in more positive attitudes (Madera et al., 2011). In this study, the evidence shows that when roles are switched and people must try to learn from the perspective of another culture, they build more empathy. The positivity and happiness levels also increase when empathy building exercises are used.

Another method to using empathy in an office setting is spirituality and self-compassion. When empathy is not included in a workplace, it can also make the individual feel less compassionate towards themselves. When people feel that they aren’t appreciated, their work ethic tends to also decrease. Peter Devenish-Meares, a professor at the Charles Sturt University’s school of theology, proposes that the school of “self-compassion” psychology, with its focus on mindfulness, common humanity, and personal well-being, could augment existing treatments Devenish-Meares, 2015). This suggests that the existing empathy training can be improved if we also focus on not only being understanding towards others, but towards yourself. When people 18 years and older were rated on job satisfaction and attitudes about themselves, it had increased after the empathy-building exercises. Having mindfulness towards what you feel are your weakest points is an important step in being empathetic. If you cannot have acceptance for yourself, it will be immensely more difficult to have empathy towards others.

The book series New Horizons in Management, by Andrew J DuBrin, touches on how self-confidence and narcissism in the workplace can effect employee attitudes. In the words of the author, this book is “intended for human resource professionals, researchers, and students and scholars of organizational behavior, organizational psychology, human relations and leadership, this book will also appeal to a broad range of serious minded readers who wish to learn more about, combat the difficulties of, or employ the benefits of narcissism” (DuBrin, 2012). By this, we can infer that anyone in these fields (specifically organizational psychology for me) can benefit from realizing that empathy is needed in the workplace. When empathy is initiated in any workplace, the employees of that place learn to understand the feelings of people other than themselves, and it opens up new means for communication. In relation to communication, empathy can also be employed in a systematic fashion, using a step-by-step process to teach a large group of employees how to accept and respect one another.

The school of compassion psychology is a widely growing field, especially in Industrial/Organizational psychology. Katherine Miller, a compassion psychologist and professor at Texas A&M University, says in her journal of Applied Communication Research, “Compassion is conceptualized as one form of emotional work and is theoretically developed through a model that highlights the sub-processes of noticing, feeling, and responding” (Miller, 2007). This description is a wonderful way of looking at how compassion and empathy both work together. She mentions three steps in becoming compassionate in the workplace: noticing, feeling, and responding. Noticing involved being actively present in any situation, and realizing what cultures are being presented. When you make the active choice to notice what is going on around you, you have the opportunity to think more deeply about the person you are dealing with. The next step that Miller mentions is feeling. This may seem like an obvious step in being compassionate and empathetic; however, it involves a more purposeful response. Thinking purposefully and mindfully about your feelings involves realizing what you are thinking about and what feelings you have during any confrontation with someone who you can empathize with. And the last step in Miller’s way to empathy is responding. This involves the most important step in showing people that you can empathize with them. Responding positively takes purposeful action and serious empathy towards people who are different from you.

In Miller’s initiation of this three-step process mentioned above, she had 23 workers in human service jobs indicate the complexities of communication in the workplace about empathy. Then, she had them use the first step of noticing details of the client’s lives. While she had them feel and think about their communication, her processes of “connecting” included both emotional processes (empathy) and cognitive processes (also called perspective taking) (Miller, 2007). Her final step, responding, was initiated by helping the workers use nonverbal strategies to balance the emotional content behind each others’ messages. The results of this study imply that happiness is not the only thing that is risen when empathy is improved in the workplace. Communication is also very widely impacted, and it helps to increase productivity with employees and clients.

On the opposite side of empathy, there are negative impacts. In a peer-reviewed article, Peter O’Brien reviews the negative effects of having no empathy in a workplace. These concepts including burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious traumatization and counter-transference are examined, with attention to how they complicate the establishment of a compassionate work place (O’Brien, 2006). A very interesting point raised in this observation was that acknowledgement of empathy fosters human connections. When we are able to be empathetic, we have the opportunity to feel with others, not for them. Fostering human connections is extremely important when you are involved in a workplace that wishes to respect each other and succeed. After O’Brien draws attention to the complications of having a workplace without empathy towards each other, he then suggests steps taken to establish a preferred work environment. The issue of empathy is not only a United States problem, but a global one that we are working on all the time.

In the book, Current issues in work and organizational psychology, by Jan Pieter van Oudenhoven, professor of the University of Groningen in Netherlands, attention is turned to the interface between organizational diversity and individual characteristics (van Oudenhoven, 2015). In this book, three types of individual difference variables are highlighted. These are intercultural personality traits (specifically, cultural empathy, social initiative, emotional stability, flexibility, and open-mindedness), attachment style (particularly the role of secure attachment in promoting integration and acculturation), and attitudes toward workplace diversity (van Oudenhoven, 2015). When van Oudenhoven mentions intercultural personality traits, he also discusses how we can use empathy to better understand our coworkers. Peggy McIntosh discusses the “invisible knapsack of privilege”. By this, she means that we all carry around a privilege, and we use it, but we never open it up and actively acknowledge that we carry it (McIntosh, 2013). While we think that our personality traits are “normal”, and others are weird and deserve to be excluded, we have to unpack our privilege and understand how they view their cultural personalities. The next part of empathy to van Oudenhoven is understanding attachment style. It is often overlooked, but understanding how your employees and coworkers integrate into a company, or merge cultures, is a very important part of becoming empathetic towards them. And lastly, the author emphasizes attitudes towards workplace diversity. Diversity seems like an obvious problem, but the way we approach it has the first impact on the people who work at any establishment. Approaching diversity with an open mind is the most important key to solving problems. If you have empathy towards your employees, you will not try to pretend that diversity is not an issue at your workplace.

For some workers, their supervisor is intolerant or differences and does not respect them. Unfortunately, many places in the United States have unsatisfied workers who suffer from a supervisor with no empathy, and therefore, the productivity will also decline. In a study done by Li-Chuan Chu, directory of the School and Health Policy and Management in Taiwan in 2014, this subject was further explored. The role of toxic emotions at work is studied using 212 men and women in a nursing building, and a potential mediator of these relationships is introduced to teach empathy and respect between boss and employee (Chu, 2014). All businesses and workplaces require empathy; however, in recent years, workplace bullying in nursing regarding cultural differences has risen. In this study, the mean of the workers’ “toxic feelings” while at work (brought on by their boss and other coworkers) was 0.18. After Li-Chuan implemented his policies on empathy, the mean of toxic feelings by the workers was -0.16 (Chu, 2014). The study concluded the following: hospital administrators can implement policies designed to manage events effectively that can spark toxic emotions in their employees, and toxic emotions could effectively predict nurses’ counterproductive work behavior and organizational citizenship behavior (Chu, 2014). But what does this mean broadly? The simplest way to evaluate this data is that when an event rises that is not handled properly by the employer in any workplace, and a toxic situation occurs, the policies that these hospital administrators used can effectively change the attitudes of the employees.

In another study done by James Conway, Steven Rogelberg, and Virginia Pitts in the Research and Development Department in the Social Sciences and Humanities, the interactions between positive feelings in the workplace and empathy training was studied. Eighty participants completed surveys about their own understandings of personality, empathy, and altruism. They did this for five work days, and their relationships were closely studied. They concluded that the relationship between positive feelings at work and workplace helping behavior depended on the personality trait of altruism in the employer (Conway et al., 2009). In other words, the more the employer is selfless and cares for his employees’ feelings and tries to empathize with them, the happier the employees are and the better they will work during the week.

In La Trobe University of Melbourne, Australia, Mary Tehan and Priscilla Robinson tried to simplify what factors effect empathy in the workplace. Specifically, they focused on grief support. Grief in the workplace, stemming from a possible hardship to the employee or their family, can be a serious factor in overall happiness and productivity. When an employee is dealing with grief, empathy must be shown to that person to make sure that they are being respected. From the Uniting Church in Australia, they decided to use a three-fold model to identify the places that universally require empathy. The management, the workshop floor, and the organization as a whole (Tehan & Robinson, 2009). Using interviews as a gauge for which processes of the workplace should be addressed at certain times, these two women published a thematic analysis about friendliness in any office. When comparing friendliness to empathy, they were sure to be careful to state that while empathy is a necessary form of getting to know and respect your coworkers, friendliness is only a helpful approach to lean on empathy. Conclusions drawn were that although befriending cannot be imposed, training in befriending would be a helpful approach to grief support in the workplace (Tehan & Robinson, 2009).

Today, there are multiple current events that contribute to people feeling discriminated against in the workplace. One of those major issues is gender equality. Nicole Cundiff, Joel Nadler, and Alicia Swan address the idea that organizational leaders need to understand how employees’ empathy toward diverse groups affects diversity program perceptions (Cundiff et al., 2009). They conducted a study at the Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with the intention of examining whether empathy towards diverse groups relates to intentions to attend and interest in diversity initiatives, specifically involving gender differences. They found that women reported higher behavioral intentions to attend positive empathy sessions (Cundiff et al., 2009). Large companies can infer from this that the diversity in the workplace among genders can be used to better target how we teach empathy to employees. Empathy, systemizing, and competitiveness have been thought to be gender-based. This type of thinking leads to biases, therefore, leading to a difficulty in teaching these strategies to employees. When you have a company with gender diversity, you need to decide how to teach empathy to them in a way that equally allows them to best understand how to respect each other. In the words of Vibeke Nielsen, the Danish author of the Gender Issues journal, “…both managers and scholars need to reflect on selection mechanisms before assuming fundamental gender differences in personal attributes within professions” (Nielsen, 2014).

Now that I have discussed the plethora of reasons that empathy needs to be enforced by the Industrial/Organizational psychologist of any company, let’s address practices in empathetic motivation in management. Gerard Beenen of Mihaylo College of Business and Economics in Fullerton, California published a workplace-related review the journal Personnel Psychology. In volume 68, he discusses how to maintain employee motivation using empathy-based management. He uses a system of management with the goal of emphasizing with employees during a crisis, tools for everyday empathy-based management, and suggestions for how to practice this management. The author of the Personnel Psychology Journal provides an in-depth look at various tools and interventionssuch as psychometric tests, 360-degree assessments, personality audits,and executive coaching that can be utilized to expedite leader development. In addition, he carefully examines the psychological contract that exists between employers and employees (Beenen, 2015). This shows the intense relationship between leadership at work, peaceful workplace interactions, and the tools necessary to achieve these goals. The purpose of an IO psychologist in any office setting is to ensure that these tools are mediated and used properly, so that empathy towards the other employees is implemented properly, thus raising productivity and overall happiness.

In conclusion, when we see empathy as morally valuable and necessary for moral action, we will be able to see conflicts in a much clearer light. Song Yujia says it best in her article, How to Be a Proponent of Empathy, when she says “…my own moral education from my parents was based largely on a sort of “training” in empathy, for they would always ask, ‘How would other people feel if you did this,’” (Yujia, 2015). We learn through experience, and when we put ourselves into others’ shoes it helps to feel the way that they do. Empathy is unlike sympathy in that sympathy is feeling for someone from the outside, similar to looking through a window, but sending flowers inside the house. When you have empathy for someone, you go “into the house” with them to feel the emotions that they do. As John Rawls, the famous philosopher, said in his proposal for the veil of ignorance, we would be fairest and most empathetic if we were told we had to create a society, but we were not told what race, gender, etc. we were. We would all create a totally equal society to try to make sure that we had fair rights no matter who we turned out to be once we lifted the veil (Freeman, 2014). If we can also apply this to Yujia’s quote about how we would feel if other people did this to us, we would show empathy to everyone we meet, in hopes that we would have fair and loving treatment in return someday. This is especially true in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. Empathy has a large role in every stage of a business, because every person would want to be helped and shown care and love when we are at a low point. Empathy in the workplace has been proven to not only make the employees feel heard and respected, but it increases productivity and helps the entire workplace to run more smoothly.


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