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Is empathy a double edged sword?

For decades, a lot of emphasis has been put on certain aspects of intelligence such as logical reasoning, math skills, spatial skills, linguistic skills etc. Researchers were puzzled by the fact that while IQ could predict to a significant degree academic performance and, to some degree, professional and personal success, there was something missing in the equation because research showed that people with fabulous IQ scores were doing poorly in life by thinking, behaving and communicating in a way that hindered their chances to succeed. The missing part in the success equation is emotional intelligence, a concept made popular by the groundbreaking book by Daniel Goleman, which is based on years of research by numerous scientists such as Peter Salovey, John Meyer, Howard Gardner, Robert Sternberg and Jack Block, just to name a few.


In 1995, David Goleman, a science journalist authored a number of books on Emotional and social intelligence and he has put together a widely accepted and most popular framework which consists of the five components of emotional intelligence. The most sought after definition of emotional intelligence is the ability to accurately perceive your own and others’ emotions; to understand the signals that emotions send about relationships; and to manage your own and others’ emotions.

The Five Components of Emotional Intelligence as per David Goleman

1) Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand personal moods and emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others.


2) Self-regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods, and the propensity to suspend judgment and to think before acting. Self-regulation, which is like an ongoing inner conversation, is the component of emotional intelligence that frees us from being prisoners of our feelings. People engaged in such a conversation feel bad moods and emotional impulses just as everyone else does, but they find ways to control them and even to channel them in useful ways.


3) Internal motivation: A passion to work for internal reasons that go beyond money and status -which are external rewards, - such as an inner vision of what is important in life, a joy in doing something, curiosity in learning, a flow that comes with being immersed in an activity. A propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.


4) Empathy: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. A skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions. Empathy is particularly important today as a component of leadership in the workplace for at least three reasons: the increasing use of teams; the rapid pace of globalization; and the growing need to retain talent.

5) Social skills: Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks, and an ability to find common ground and build rapport. It’s not just a matter of friendliness, although people with high levels of social skill are rarely mean-spirited. Social skill, rather, is friendliness with a purpose: When you take your work environment for instance, it is moving people in the direction you desire, whether that’s agreement on a new marketing strategy or enthusiasm about a new product.




David Goleman has done plentiful research on this topic and there is a best seller HBR article titled “What makes a leader” which emphasizes on these 5 five skills that enable the best leaders to maximize their own and their followers' performance. I’d definitely recommend everyone to read this HBR article.


Most large companies today have employed trained psychologists to develop what are known as “competency models” to aid them in identifying, training, and promoting likely stars in the leadership firmament. There are persuasive stories and research about the link between a company’s success and the emotional intelligence of its leaders in his book. Every businessperson knows a story about a highly intelligent, highly skilled executive who was promoted into a leadership position only to fail at the job. And they also know a story about someone with solid—but not extraordinary—intellectual abilities and technical skills who was promoted into a similar position and then soared. David Goleman writes “It would be foolish to assert that good old-fashioned IQ and technical ability are not important ingredients in strong leadership. But the recipe would not be complete without emotional intelligence. It was once thought that the components of emotional intelligence were “nice to have” in business leaders. But now we know that, for the sake of performance, these are ingredients that leaders “need to have.”


I believe emotional intelligence can be learned. It's not easy, it needs time and commitment, but the benefits that come from it both for my own personal as well as career growth make it worth the effort. I have learned that being competitive at work only causes more stress and leads to failure. Collaborating, helping others at work and peer-peer learning has helped me achieve successful results and build creative solutions at work . Having this headspace will help you grow in your career and get alignment across teams and leadership quickly. Emotional intelligence can be developed through practice and feedback from others. What I’ve found really helpful is taking EQ tests online, reflecting on my scores and assessment and discussing my results with my friends, partner and colleagues.


I want to share some interesting concepts on empathy, which is one of the core components of EI. Jamil Zaki, author of War of Kindness: Building empathy in a fractured world talks about this concept called Altruism born of suffering, which is used to describe individuals who have suffered pain may become particularly motivated to help others since they have gone through similar experiences. People who have suffered from violence reclaim meaning and turn toward others, becoming caring and helpful, a phenomenon that has been referred to as altruism born of suffering. People with these abilities who motivate themselves to come out of a suffering have something called as Post traumatic growth commonly referred to as PTG. It is attributed to personal characteristics like promoting resilience, self-confidence, locus of control, and optimism after experiencing a trauma.




Empathy can bring people together and help us develop more resilience and self confidence, but is there a downside to having empathy? Paul Bloom, professor of psychology at Yale and author of “Against empathy” has a very interesting perspective about empathy versus compassion. Bloom uses clinical studies and simple logic to argue that empathy, however well-intentioned, is a poor guide for moral reasoning. Worse, to the extent that individuals and societies make ethical judgments on the basis of empathy, they become less sensitive to the suffering of greater and greater numbers of people. A lot of people think empathy and compassion are merely a verbal distinction, that it doesn't matter much, but there’s a lot of evidence in his book that empathy and compassion activate different parts of the brain. Empathy means feeling the feelings of other people. So if you’re in pain and I feel your pain - I am feeling empathy toward you. If you’re being anxious, I pick up your anxiety. If you’re sad and I pick up your sadness, I’m being empathetic. And that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings. But more importantly, they have different consequences. If I have empathy toward you, it will be painful if you’re suffering. It will be exhausting. It will lead me to avoid you and avoid helping. But if I feel compassion for you, I’ll be invigorated. I’ll be happy and I’ll try to make your life better. Paul Bloom writes "Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism, empathy makes us “favoring one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity toward others. We have a limited capacity for feeling the pain of others, and we tend to identify with those who remind us of ourselves. Empathy is more driven to our tribe, which makes us less caring to people outside of our group"


There is an interesting research study I want to share on tribalism. The research group recruited Manchester United fans and asked them to write about why they like Manu and they were asked to go to the campus field to watch the match. On their way they saw a jogger who twisted his ankle and fell to the ground and he was an actor (sometimes he wore Manu jersey and some other times he wore a Liverpool jersey (hatred rival) and some other times a plain jersey). Most of the times, the participants stepped over Liverpool jogger which is an example of classic tribalism. The interesting part of the research is the second version, where they asked Manu fans this time to write about why they love soccer and put them in the same scenario. After writing why they loved soccer, this time they helped Liverpool fans. But they still did not help the ones who wore the plain jersey, which is kind of funny.


We all have many different selves within us. If I think myself as an South Indian, I will be more inclined to my native language speaking people, if I think myself as an Indian, I will be more inclined towards helping the suffering of Indian people , and if I think myself as as human being the inclination group will grow even further. If I think myself as just another being on this planet equal to every other living and non living thing, then I feel at oneness with everything around me and develop more compassion. People can be fundamentally different for fundamentally similar reasons. We can all have totally different values, and none of them are actually right or wrong, our opinions depends on the experiences we have had, the things that have hurt us and helped us along the way and the factors that have influenced us. Often times when we encounter people who have different opinions than us, or a different viewpoint that we abhor, it's easy to view them as obtuse, dishonest or both. That's a mistake. Psychologists call this naive realism which means only your version of the world is real. Empathy at a deep level means someone else's world is as real as yours.


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