The construct of empathy has been the subject of socio-psychological research for many years. The guideline there is that empathy represents a desirable property with numerous advantages. Empathy is defined as the ability and willingness to recognize and understand thoughts and feelings of another person.
The topic of empathy is increasingly gaining importance in the field of organizational research, too. Researchers were able to demonstrate several positive outcomes of empathy for occupational life. Thus, in the year 2006, Choi linked the property to show empathy to the charismatic leadership style, resulting in better team coherence and motivation. In 2010, Cohen was able to demonstrate that empathic negotiators used fewer unethical means in negotiations that were to harm their opponents. In line with this, in 2011, Wang and Murnighan discovered that empathy works as a shield against calculative and profit-orientated mindsets. The piece of advice to follow, therefore, seems easy to identify: If you want to succeed on the job, be empathic and caring.
Nevertheless, there are downsides to empathy, too, which are currently studied and identified by researchers. In 2014, for example, Tania Singer found out that empathic observers had heightened cortisol levels after just watching other people being stressed. Jonathon Halbesleben from the University of Alabama showed in 2009 that especially empathic employees had bigger problems maintaining solid relationships with their relatives and friends. It seems that empathy is neither uniformly positive nor an endless human resource. Under certain circumstances even the quality of our decisions suffers. In the trolley problem a fictitious train is headed unstoppably towards five track workers. The participants of the test are offered the choice to change the switch to another line, where only one man is working. 90 percent of participants choose this latter option. However, if the single worker is introduced with a name, a family and a history, the tide is turning and the majority would be willing to sacrifice the five other workers.
These examples show how empathy can harm the individual or can specifically manipulate our rational decisions. As it is often the case, the right dosage seems to be the solution to the problem. The right amount of empathy brings along several advantages and protects us of the negative consequences. To find the right balance appears to be the crucial task we should become sensitive for.
Idea and more interesting findings about empathy in the article of the Wirtschaftswoche: