The Most Important Job Skill for 2020, and How to Cultivate it

Forget the ability to un-jam the copier, program arcane codes, or add ridiculously large numbers in your head. The #1 job skill for 2020 is empathy.

This is according to an article on LinkedIn last week, written by Forbes contributor George Anders. His article,  The Number One Job Skill in 2020, makes the observation that the common trait in all of our fastest growing occupations—from teaching to healthcare to customer service— is that each of them requires higher than average levels of empathy.

But empathy is not only the domain of funeral directors and school psychologists.  Empathy, it turns out, makes ANY profession more effective, and enriches EVERY company’s culture.

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand the feelings, experiences and motives of others. According to Dr. Daniel Goleman, it is one of the five key components of EQ (emotional intelligence) and the one that is most critical in developing and retaining employees. When it is present among people in the workplace, it connects us through bonds of mutual trust, it gives us deep insights into people’s motivation and it offers us tools to work more effectively with them.

According to Dev Patniak, author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. “The best organizations and the ones that survive economic tsunamis are those with empathetic cultures and managers who are able to step outside themselves and walk in someone else’s shoes.

Research conducted by Dianne Crampton at Gonzaga University agrees. She found that: “Empathy is a universal team value that promotes high commitment and cooperation in the workplace. Empathy is important to successful conflict resolution because understanding diverse perspectives allows collaborative solutions to rise from chaos.”

So how can you create a culture of empathy in your organization?

Dianne Crampton advises that while there is evidence that some people are not genetically disposed to empathize, the best way to encourage empathy is to:

Teach listening skills. To understand others, team members must be good listeners.

Be selective during the hiring process. Organizations are learning to make their selections based on character, communication skills, and willingness to work in a collaborative team environment for the success of the organization as a whole.

Recognize your employees – they are human, not machines! A thank you or small token of appreciation such as a note goes a long way.

Be cautious, though. Empathy is a not a switch we can throw. It is a muscle. It can only be strengthened and developed when people are given opportunities to practice it. This means perhaps the best way you can encourage empathy in your employees is to give them an opportunity to reflect on the experiences and feelings of their co-workers and then act on that reflection.

In fact, according to researchers at the University of Stockholm empathy is not fully realized until the empathizer takes some action to express that empathy. (Examples of this might be lending a hand, expressing solidarity, or offering praise.) According to the study there was a strong relationship between “empathy towards another person and a motivation to act for the benefit of the person,” and the study concluded there was “considerable evidence for action being crucial to the experience of empathy from both empathizer’s and target’s perspectives.”

Of course feeling empathy is only half of the story, it is also important to show others that you are empathetic, to close the loop. Educator Bruna Martinuzzi offers the following list of tips for helping employees to feel and express empathy:

  • Listen.
  • Don’t interrupt people.
  • Tune in to non-verbal communication.
  • Practice the “93 percent rule” (The things we say  account for only 7 percent of the total message that people receive. The other 93 percent of the message that we communicate when we speak is contained in our tone of voice and body language.)
  • Use people’s names.
  • Be fully present when you are with people.
  • Smile at people.
  • Encourage people.
  • Give genuine recognition and praise. Pay attention to what people are doing and catch them doing the right things.
  • Take a personal interest in people. Show people that you care, and genuine curiosity about their lives.

What works to inspire empathy in your workplace?


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