As the world shifts from an economy based on manufacturing to an economy based on data, knowledge, and service-provision, social skills are central to organizational success. Over the past four decades, research has consistently shown that social skills can be taught, but further advancement in this area requires us to closely examine the processes involved in forming and maintaining workplace relationships.
Social psychologists have identified two processes involved in all relationships. The first process is known as “perspective taking,” and it involves using one’s thinking capacities to understand how other people view the world. The second process is known as “empathic concern,” and it involves using one’s emotional capacities to understand how others are feeling. Researchers have debated the relationship between these two processes. Some argue that the two processes are essentially identical, whereas others argue that they are related, but distinct. Settling this debate is important, because if the two processes are distinct, then we can differentiate them and better understand when each process is most effective.
EXAMINING THE LITERATURE
To settle this debate, the authors (Longmire & Harrison, 2018) aggregated data from 118 empirical studies. Their analysis showed that perspective taking and empathic concern are distinct processes. Furthermore, both processes are distinct from other related concepts, including emotional intelligence, self-monitoring, and agreeableness. Deeper analysis of the data illuminated how these two processes are different and how each process impacts important organizational outcomes.
Perspective taking requires attention to be split between both self and other. It allows an individual to attribute goals and intentions to other people by grounding understanding of the other in the understanding of the self. In tasks that involve joint effort, perspective taking helped people to arrive at mutually beneficial arrangements. Perspective taking is particularly important in competitive contexts, as it facilitates strategic thinking. Perspective taking is also important when an individual higher in organizational status is trying to communicate with someone of lower organizational status.
Empathic concern does not involve split attention. Instead, it requires an individual to center their attention on others. Both perspective taking and empathic concern increased an individual’s willingness to bond with others and provide them with social resources; however, the increase was significantly more pronounced with empathic concern. Similarly, both perspective taking and empathic concern increased an individual’s willingness to hear the views of other people; however, empathic concern also caused individuals to change their behavior. When perspective taking and empathic concern are offered, other people tend to feel more satisfied with the interaction, but when met with empathic concern, other people are more likely to not only feel satisfied, but to reciprocate by providing support to the person who offered them empathy. Empathic concern can be a liability in competitive contexts, as it decreases the extent to which others are willing to make concessions in one’s favor.
PUTTING IT INTO ACTION
Both perspective taking and empathic concern are trainable skills. Perspective taking is a useful skill in competitive contexts – for example, high stakes negotiations. It is also a useful skill for those high in organizational status (e.g. supervisors, managers, executives, etc.), as it helps them to collaborate with those lower in organizational status. Perspective taking is important when engaged in problem-solving and decision-making, particularly when it comes to decisions about allocation of organizational resources, as perspective taking encourages fairness. Empathic concern is a useful skill when an organization is establishing and reinforcing social bonds. It fosters an organizational culture characterized by trust and support. It also encourages collaboration among employees, as those who are offered empathy are more likely to reciprocate.
Longmire, N. H. & Harrison, D. A. (2018). Seeing their side versus feeling their pain: Differential consequences of perspective-taking and empathy at work. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(8), 894-915.