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leaders we coach want to develop. Te question remains: can they develop this skill? Or is empathy simply something which we are born with? Tere are a number of researchers

who have argued that our ability to empathise is determined by a combina- tion of our genes, neurophysiology and our interaction with the environment. For example, through studies of identical and non-identical twins, a number of aspects of empathetic behaviour have been identified as being inherited, while very specific genes – such as the ‘warrior’ gene – have been associated with higher levels of aggression and lower levels of empathy. While many of us may have the gene for aggression, they argue, it is only triggered in some of us following exposure to a particular environment. Some researchers have also sug-

gested that there are gender differences in levels of empathy, stemming from neuropsychological structures. Tese are relatively new and controversial perspectives on empathy, based on relatively new and controversial research into the brain’s structure. No doubt, more grounded research will follow. What we do

know, through coaching and development, is that while empathy may be shaped by early life experi- ences, it is not a fixed commodity and is constantly influenced by different experiences. Illustrating this are the results of two longitudinal evaluations (by Kandola and Hammarling in 2013) that demonstrated significant changes in perceptions of leadership through the use of a ‘perspective taking’ tool, giving managers the key steps to improving their empathic understanding of others’ situations. We have also recently

completed a leadership programme with more than 400 high-performing business | May 2017 | 11

leaders. As a group, these leaders make up a relatively independent and entrepreneurial part of their business – they are the frontline commercial leaders. At the outset, they scored lower in the ‘empathic’ behaviours and higher in the ‘task’ behaviours. Tis was reflected in psychometric data and 360 degree feedback. Following the programme, and supported with six months of focused coaching, we saw significant changes in attitudes to people leadership across the business. We remeasured personality data and gathered 360 degree feedback data from the same colleagues, and have seen significant changes in the levels of collaboration, listening, understanding and supporting behaviours.

Final thought

Empathy is something that most of us possess, at least to some degree. It is a skill and a quality that can make the difference between a leader being a

Stuart Duff is head of development at Pearn Kandola. Follow him on Twitter @StuartDuff22 and visit

strong, tough, objective decision-maker, and a strong, tough, engaging and inclusive decision-maker. Indeed, it is quite possible that empathy is a ‘meta skill’ that allows an individual to become skilled in a wide range of other interpersonal areas. Watch this space. Te risks of low empathy in a

leadership group are also very obvious, and yet organisations may unwittingly discourage or stifle empathy in their managers and emerging leaders, in favour of achieving results and ‘getting on with it’. Tis will encourage strong task delivery, but could just have implications for the long-term effectiveness of people leadership and be at the heart of why, at senior levels, so many leaders seek coaching support for developing empathy.

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