News: Tension in the Workplace? Use Empathy, says London Business School

Don’t let work conflicts get you down. Researchers say you have the power to resolve conflicts and heal relationships at work.

How? Empathy.

Recent studies by Gabrielle Adams and M. Ena Inesi of the London Business School, which will soon be published in theJournal of Personality and Social Psychology, reveal that using a little empathy – that is, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes — is a powerful antidote to workplace conflict.

In an interview with The New York Times, Adams says their research shows that in workplace conflict, it’s common for there to be misunderstandings between the perceived victim and the offender — the person (or persons) committing the harm or wrongdoing.

“In many cases, the transgressors did not intend a negative effect, whereas the victims tended to think that the damage was intentional. In addition, transgressors frequently felt guilty and wanted to be forgiven much more than their victims realized.”

Adams says using empathy can reduce people’s misunderstandings or “miscalibrations” of others’ intent.

“We ask victims to think about what it would be like to be the transgressor, and you reduce that miscalibration,” Adams tells the Times.

She recommends that managers and employers use — and encourage workers to use — empathy to resolve conflicts.

Of course, empathy isn’t always going to lead to workplace harmony. For example, if the offender doesn’t think that what he or she did was wrong and the “victim” offers forgiveness, it could backfire because the offender may view it as “self-righteous,” says the Times.

“Before you can even offer forgiveness, there needs to be some kind of mutual understanding of the transgression,” Adams warns.


My thoughts: The sentence that I notice most in this, is this one…“We ask victims to think about what it would be like to be the transgressor, and you reduce that miscalibration.” This is something I had to do when I had to try and understand the motivations of clinicians in the hospital that I held responsible for possible neglect of a child that later died.

It was very hard, but I had to think what it might be like to be them. I had to do this at a time when it was hard to disassociate with my own overwhelming grief. But I did it and it worked. My pursuit of the truth was not diluted in any way, but my feelings of hatred of another human being, was diluted. Information and experiences I share as part of my empathy training course.

I have had to do this many times since on much lesser issues. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. But what stays prominent in my mind, is trying to see the other persons position and take on the event, which is a very powerful tool. This is not always a comfortable place to be. Cognitive dissonance and wanting to keep hold of our views is very strong sometimes.

You also need the other person to do that for you too and often that is not the case and recognising that and when to accept that too and often protect yourself is also an important part of emotional development. Empathy itself actually spring boards off emotional development. But, not using empathy yourself, creates a situation that can guarantee conflict. As Professor Simon Baron Cohen from Cambridge University ‘The conflict won’t stop until we empathise’ 

Carolyn Cleveland –

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