Business leaders can learn a lot from the medical field. Results in care providing depend to a significant extent on empathy. And so do business results. If there is one thing we’ve learned in the past months, in this pandemic that has hit mankind, it is that empathy – the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person – has turned into a decisive skill.
Empathy as detached concern?
It comes with a challenge: many business leaders are blocked by an unconscious bias from developing empathy for others. They may have been taught not to show emotions – and not to perceive them. Now that the value of accepting, and working with, emotions has become evident, business leaders are required to open up … and to do so, they can learn a lot from the medical field.
What I have observed is that, when leaders discuss empathy, they view it as some form of detached cognition. However, the function of empathy is not merely to label emotional states, but to recognize what it feels like to be experiencing something. That is why empathy is needed even when it is quite obvious what the emotion label is that applies to a given person.
The willingness and openness to listen attentively to the narratives of others, and to relate to these stories, are key to empathy. This approach requires a suitable mindset, compassion, and comprehensiveness of attention. The medical field is a prime example of how empathy with its impact on reaching shared goals can be achieved.
New approaches to medical education aimed at developing empathy
Empathy can be learned. A classical module in the context of training and enabling empathy are communication trainings. They include role-play, with, e.g. the learner alternating between the roles of physician and patient. As a next step, these simulations are discussed. In addition, medical studies teach the analysis of body language – which also fosters the development of empathy skills.
In addition to training in communication, narrative interventions have been attracting a lot of attention. The realization that narratives are a useful resource in better understanding medical conditions in the context of life situations of patients has led to an increase in narrative training measures. Narration trainings help to improve the ability to listen, which enables the identification of meanings implicit to narrations. I have heard about a case with young physicians who paid too little attention to patients with presumably diagnoses of mild conditions, and ridiculing them. Subsequently, their physician educator ordered them to spend at least one hour per week with one patient, listening to that patient’s personal story. At first, the students were reluctant to perform that task; after a while, however, their attitude changed. According to their feedback, they quickly developed an interest in their patient’s story, and their empathy emerged naturally.
What I also find worth looking into is the work of physician and literature scientist Rita Charon who aims at increasing empathy through narration and creative writing. Charon will task the attendees of her courses e.g. with providing the patient’s story from the viewpoint of their patients and with narrating challenging patient-physician-meetings or their own medical conditions.
German medical faculties too are experimenting with narrative interventions. As an example, Giessen University offers the course “The (good) physician between fact and fiction”. In this course, students of medicine process real and fictional experiences of physician-patient encounters and subsequent reflection creatively in texts they write. Fact combined with fiction turns into faction.
And here’s an example that goes to extremes
Self-perception as a didactic tool is in the focus of hospitalization experiments in the US: through psoriasis tattoos, e.g., student volunteers transformed themselves into patients with obvious dermatological conditions. They experienced related emotional experiences such as unwanted attention and shame, firsthand.
Didactic formats such as these aim at utilizing one’s own experiences to improve the ability to feel empathic for patients.
Transferring these trends to the business world
How can we adapt, and transfer approaches such as these to the business world? What can business learn from medical education? Let’s take a look at to examples.
1. Job shadowing
This should be set up in a way that a “learner” will not only shadowing a co-worker whose role/function/job he/she aims to take on – but also vice versa. In this vein, as a medical doctor taking on a new job in a company, I started out working for a couple weeks in the trainee center and on the assembly line to understand the kind of work team members did. A positive side effect is that this allowed me to learn to weld, operate lathes, and grind. – This also works for instruments such as mentoring, with both partners narrating their experiences.
2. Town Hall Meetings with top-Management
Traditional Town Hall Meetings with the “boss” informing teams about new developments have now been replaced by new formats such as “Ask me anything”, with the top manager answering questions from team members.
If we take the concept of participation seriously, this creates a space in which employees are provided the opportunity to present their experiences – including negative things, without any fear of retribution.
I guess this is called a culture of TRUST. Communication formats such as “Ask me anything”, with the top manager answering all questions of team members, or “May I ask you something”, with the attuning to, and understanding the emotions of people we interact with, helps us to share decisions and reach our goals – at the business and personal levels.
3. Keep up to date with how the members of your team feel
As a primary care physician, I supported and guided patients in their social ecosystems over years. I realized how they felt, and I was quick to pick up any changes in their behavior. This is similar to the situation of leaders who have known their colleagues and team members for years. To keep up to date may come with challenges in a virtual work environment. However, suitable options are available; they include team coffee talks, meetings with avatars, and simple on-on-one conversations with the camera switched on.
Let’s take the learning from the medical field to spread empathy for everybody’s benefit.