I’m fascinated by studies that show the link between empathy and job performance. The medical malpractice insurance industry has long known that patients want to sue the doctor with the bad bedside manner rather than the doctor who actually made the mistake. Studies have consistently shown this over the years. And as a former human resource director I can tell you the same holds true of employees who sue their employers; it’s the manager with the lousy leadership style that ends up in court, rather than the manager who actually made the mistake that appeared to discriminate against a legally protected category (although often those two are the same).
Dan Pink’s To Sell is Human refers to a study done by an Israeli radiologist named Yehonatan Turner, who matched photos of patients with their CT scans and compared the results of their radiology reviews with a control group in which radiologists simply reviewed scans without photos. Not only did the group with photos report feeling more empathy, but they also had more “incidental findings,” meaning that they found abnormalities unrelated to what they were looking for. When the radiologists reviewed the same scans three months later without the photos, 80% of the incidental findings were not reported.
When you take the human factor out of work, bad things happen. Mistakes are made, problems overlooked, lawsuits filed. Which is why it surprises me when I still find people who believe emotions have no business in the workplace. In a recent leadership class, two of the participants argued with me for four days whenever we talked about the importance of emotional intelligence. “Why do we have to talk about feelings?” one of them said. “All that really matters is the mission. If someone is underperforming or misbehaving, I’m not going to talk about how it makes me feel or what emotions they might be having that get in the way. I’m just going to tell them what they need to do or stop doing.”
If only it were really that simple. Maybe someday we’ll all be replaced by robots and it will be that simple. In the meantime, leaders who ignore the emotions that make us human do so at their own peril.
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