In the early 1990’s neuroscientists at the University of Parma discovered that brain cells not only fire when we perform a given action, such as reaching for a cold drink on a hot day, they also fire when we see someone else doing that action – hence the name mirror neuron (click here for a link to the research). This is why we sometimes wince when we see another person experience pain or embarrassment.
This theory has been used to explain characteristics such as empathy, the ability to read other people’s emotions, with some research* suggesting that the female brain is better able to create mirror neurons and therefore better equipped to anticipate the moods and feelings of others. The men vs women debate continues…..
Effective managers use empathy to understand what motivates or concerns their team members – empathy has been called the oil that keeps relationships running smoothly. Being able to understand and predict how people will react to a new challenge enables the manager to make more informed choices about how work is shared out and feedback is best delivered. Those with low empathy will often be seen as effective because they find it easy to think strategically, rarely allowing emotion to cloud their judgment. The fact is that all organisations involve people, both customers and staff. And no matter how good the strategy might be, if people get upset the odds of failure increase dramatically.
Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen believes the female brain is wired to empathise whilst the male brain has a tendency to systemise. The male brain seeks to develop a set of logical rules that guide another person’s behaviour. Women may be more empathetic because their brains’ mirror neurons are more sensitive than men’s.
Empathetic managers are more likely to:
- Understand the root cause behind poor performanc
- Identify and act upon development needs
- Come alongside and coach a team member
- Identify with an individual’s values
- Create a less stressful work environment
Emotional Intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman says:
Leaders with empathy do more than sympathize with people around them: they use their knowledge to improve their companies in subtle, but important ways, by thoughtfully considering employees’ feelings – along with other factors – in the process of making intelligent decisions.
So, if you are a rational male in a managerial role is there hope. Thankfully empathy, although an innate skill, can be learned.
- Use your imagination – empathy is simply imagining how you would feel in a particular position. Try picturing it and empathetic reactions should come naturally.
- Practice active listening paying attention not only to what is being said, but how it is being communicated.
- Use body language to help convey empathy.
- Reflect and repeat – both to encourage open communication and to validate what is being communicated.
- Be fully there – when talking to your team members ensure that you are focused on them and the issue at hand, removing distractions and allowing sufficient time for the conversation
And finally if you’re still concerned that increasing your empathy will make you a weaker manager, remember that being empathetic doesn’t mean you have to agree with how the other person sees things; rather, having empathy means that you’re willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.
“Gender Differences in Brain Networks Supporting Empathy“, Martin Schulte-Rüther, Hans J. Markowitsch, N. Jon Shah, Gereon R. Fink, and Martina Piefke in NeuroImage (2008);
“Emotional Wiring Different in Men and Women“, Robin Lloyd in LiveScience (2006);
“Language-Associated Cortical Regions are Proportionally Larger in the female Brain“, Harasty J, Double KL, Halliday GM, Kril JJ, McRitchie DA in Archives of Neurology (1997).