Has empathy become blunted in the public sector?

Empathy is increasingly seen in the private sector as a key component of business success.

Empathy is the ability to build connection with people, to understand how they think and feel and what is important for them. Whether those people are customers, employees, potential business partners or clients, insight in to how they see and understand the world is informing and shaping the business community.

But what is happening in the public sector? There is a growing feeling that perhaps empathy is diminishing. Public sector organisations have been, and continue to be challenged to make cost efficiencies and this has reduced the workforce quite significantly.

This unrelenting pace of change and re-shaping of service delivery models has left many in the public sector reeling and constantly looking over their shoulder to see if their department, their team or they themselves will be next in line for reorganisation or even redundancy.

During periods of constant change empathy in organisations has been shown to decrease. This is at a time when people most need to feel understood and supported. A reduced sense of empathy may be a mode of self-defence as public sector employees are more consumed by their own concerns and insecurities.

Public sector leaders need to take account of this and consider to what extent they are demonstrating empathy. To be the other person, to seek to understand what they are feeling and the emotions they are experiencing may seem challenging when there are so many demands on one’s time. However, the power of ‘pull’ is so much more effective than ‘push’.

Connecting or pulling others towards us through empathic behaviour rather than relying on the push of control opens up a communication that is about mutual interests, listening and influencing.

Empathy stimulates pro-social behaviour. It builds trust, empathy heals when people are feeling bruised by change, empathy rebuilds connection and enables people to move forward.

Like any good communication tool, empathy is a skill that leaders must hone and improve in their organisations.  If we want others to listen to and understand our position, if we want others to respond to and work cooperatively with us, then we must consider their perspective and how they perceive us.