The construct of empathy has been the subject of social psychological research for many years. There the principle applies that empathy is a desirable quality that is associated with numerous advantages. Empathy is defined as the ability and willingness to recognize and understand another person’s thoughts and feelings.
The topic of empathy is also becoming increasingly important in the area of organizational research. Researchers have already been able to demonstrate some positive effects of empathy on professional life here as well. In 2006, Choi brought the quality of empathy closely together with the leadership style of the charismatic leader, who welds and drives his followers together. In 2010, Cohen was able to show that empathetic negotiators used less unethical means during the negotiation that would have harmed their counterparts. Wang and Murnighan also found out in 2011 that empathy protects against purely calculating and profit-oriented ways of thinking. The advice to be followed seems to be found quickly: Be empathetic and compassionate if you want to advance professionally.
Nevertheless, there is also a downside to empathy, which researchers also investigate and identify. Tania Singer found in a study in 2014, for example, that empathic observers also had elevated cortisol levels only when they were watching other stressed people. Jonathon Halbesleben from the University of Alabama showed in 2009 that particularly empathetic employees had greater problems maintaining good relationships with their relatives and friends. Empathy does not seem to be consistently positive, nor does the person seem to have an infinite supply of empathy. The quality of our decisions can also suffer under certain circumstances. In the switchman test, a fictitious train rolls inexorably towards five track workers. The test participants have the choice of moving the turnout to another track on which only one person works. 90 percent of the participants choose this option. However, if the individual worker gets a name, a family and a story, the tide turns and the majority would rather sacrifice the five workers.
These examples show how empathy can harm people or specifically manipulate our rational decisions. As is so often the case, the solution to the problem seems to be a matter of dosage. The right amount of empathy brings numerous advantages and protects us from the negative consequences. Finding this right balance seems to be the crucial task for which it is necessary to develop a feeling.
Idea and other interesting findings on empathy in the article in Wirtschaftswoche: