Solving the Empathy Shortage

Can you guess the most important word in the world? 

If you said Empathy, I’m guessing you have a healthy amount of it. We could use more people like you! 

Have you noticed a deficit of Empathy lately? I’m talking in particular about a shortage of Empathy, as well as Caring, among members of certain generations – such as Millennials and Gen Z. Commentators say one reason is the Covid isolation we’ve all experienced since 2020, and are just now fully emerging from, at last. 

Covid certainly is a big factor in our collective state of mind and our struggles with being Empathetic, but it can’t be blamed for all of it.

I know that you might right now be saying that, if anything, Millennials are known for their surplus, not shortage, of Empathy – such as their vocal activism supporting voting rights and racial justice and environmentalism. 

I have two things to say about that: One is that a case could be made that some of that is lip service. It’s easy to talk about your belief in certain causes, but what are you doing about it? Here’s the other thing: I’m talking about a more interpersonal brand of Empathy than showing up at a rally with a sign. 

Have you noticed lately, as I have, that Millennials and Gen Z tend to avoid getting into really serious discussions about such crucial matters of the moment as politics or the economy? How about the ambivalence toward the workplace? Investing all of your energy in your career is a form of Empathy too. Success doesn’t come to you. You have to go after it with everything you have. That requires having Empathy for yourself – and Caring about your own future.

I could be accused of lacking Empathy if I didn’t acknowledge that there are Millennials and Gen Z who feel there are Baby Boomers who lack Empathy.  So the question becomes whether an entire generation can fairly be said to lack Empathy and needs to Care more? Shouldn’t we be talking about individuals instead of stereotyping individuals by age group? Fair point.

What also is true is that Millennials and Gen Z share among themselves certain characteristics common to their generation. They speak about the importance of “work-life balance,” which, to me, is a euphemism for wanting more hours away from work, also known as “me” time, which is consistent with how Millennials have come to be known as the “Me Generation.” 

Of course, the way many Millennials respond to that criticism is by pointing out who raised them: Baby Boomers! 

The current political climate in the U.S. can be considered a factor in the Empathy and Caring problem. People with opposing views don’t want to listen to each other. Worse than that, they would rather taunt each other, like we did as little kids in the schoolyard.

One of the world’s dominant influencers is Elon Musk, the eccentric billionaire mastermind who recently added Twitter to the collection of companies he owns. Long before he became King Twit, Musk was famous for using the social media platform to pick fights with, and insult, all kinds of people. For all his smarts and achievements, Elon doesn’t seem to have much use for Empathy, to say the least, yet he wields enormous influence with younger generations. 

I don’t know what makes him so insensitive to other people, but if there’s a lesson in his behavior, it may be that being fabulously wealthy and brilliantly innovative doesn’t make you a role model for anyone, in particular people finding their way in the world and looking for responsible leadership.

Speaking of Twitter, technology isn’t exactly helping to elevate Empathy. In fact, it’s doing the opposite. When your face and your attention are plugged into this screen or that screen all day long, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for IRL (In Real Life) connection. Constantly being connected to others through digital devices also is a form of disconnection from Empathy.

And let’s face it: Human interaction is Empathy’s oxygen. Without proximity to a warm body a healthy portion of the time, it’s easy not to think about, let alone worry about, or help out, other people.  

At the other end of the Empathy spectrum from Elon Musk is another mega-celebrity, by the name of Bruce Springsteen. The Boss’s concern for his fellow human being is a constant theme throughout his prolific catalog of music. 

That same Empathy, as well as his authentic Humility, also is on full display during Springsteen’s two-plus-hour interview by radio superstar Howard Stern (produced by HBO and Sirius XM). Springsteen’s gratitude for his legendary career is matched by a talent for not allowing his ego to define who he is. 

Chatting casually and openly with Howard, Bruce comes across as just your average guy whom you’d enjoy having a beer with – and who just happens to be one of the most beloved and successful performing artists of modern times.  

Springsteen’s Humility motivates him to never become complacent about his remarkable accomplishments. There always is a new peak to aim for. Like The Boss, you should take pride in your work, yet not become so satisfied with yourself that you stop trying to constantly improve.  

Exercising Empathy and Caring in daily life is an essential part of getting a life, and I have a lot to say about Empathy and Caring in my forthcoming book, Get a Life: A Roadmap to Rule the World (Forbes Books). 

I’m including here a few key observations in the book that focus squarely on Empathy. I’ve left intact the boldface italics for emphasis, exactly as they appear in the book (which you can order now on bookseller sites or at your local bookstore). 

There is a need for Empathy between generations. That idea is at the heart of my Millennial Baby Boomer® brand (as introduced in my first publication from Forbes Books, Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer). With so much focus on the Millennial generation, I felt that it was overdue to create a relatable bridge to more actively connect that generation with Baby Boomers. I call it Generation-Splicing. It’s all about how Millennials and Baby Boomers can bridge the generation gap, and that is all about Empathy.

You don’t have to be the CEO or the owner of a company to demonstrate Empathy for the place where you work. It entails understanding the needs of your colleagues, of your managers, and, most importantly, of your customers. 

Just as I advocate Mutual Mentoring, Empathy in the workplace is a two-way street. Management needs to give workers not only material resources but moral support too. It should educate workers about upper management’s responsibilities, whether it reports to shareholders or to a private equity owner. The more a company’s human resources appreciate the challenges, frustrations and imperatives weighing on the C-suite, the more they’ll grow individually, and in sync with the corporate culture.

Besides, workers who appreciate what it is like to be in a company’s senior ranks are the talent most likely to land there themselves. Management that doesn’t show Empathy toward workers ends up with a serious morale problem. Workers who don’t show Empathy toward management end up either flat-lining in the same job, indefinitely, or out the door, definitely.

On a one-to-one basis, showing your supervisor Empathy can be as simple as acting out the timeless business advice not to bring a problem to their office unless you also bring a solution. Otherwise, you’re just pushing your problems onto their desk. If you’re routinely expecting a supervisor to solve your issue when you walk in, after awhile they’re going to question your value to them and to the company.

Vulnerability, Humility and Caring are relatives of Empathy. People gravitate to those who are strong enough to allow their Vulnerable side to show through. The biggest myth about human nature, especially among men, is that it’s the tough ones who never admit mistakes. Wrong!

Seeing things from other people’s perspectives is important for your success.  People typically think about what they want and not how what they want is perceived by others. We all know people – including our closest friends – who don’t always listen closely to what you are saying. They are texting when someone else is talking, or, if they are really versatile, they are texting while eating with you. That’s showing lack of Respect.

Wherever I led teams, but especially at specialty apparel national retail chain rue21, one of the hallmarks of my management style was to treat people as a big family. I made it a point to be considerate of their lives. They would come to my office when they did something out of the ordinary and proudly tell me, “Look what I did!”

It was always on my mind to try to help wherever I could. Be selfless as a leader. If you worry about others being successful you too will be successful. That’s not just talk. That’s my life

Get A Life: A Roadmap To Rule The World