Network Research Highlight: Understanding Empathy with Malissa Clark

By: Keaton Fletcher

In a recent review accepted for publication in the Journal of Organizational Behavior, Dr. Malissa Clark (Work Science Center Network Member) and colleagues provide a clearer understanding of the nature and role of empathy in the workplace. Empathy is a complex phenomenon with affective (e.g., experiencing others’ emotions), behavioral (e.g., demonstrating you share another’s internal state), and cognitive (e.g., understanding others’ thoughts) components. People can vary in their trait-levels of empathy, in other words, some people are more empathetic than others, but can also vary moment-to-moment in their empathic state (i.e., I’m more empathetic now than I was this morning).

Clark and colleagues suggest that the proposed link between empathy and improved job performance may be premature; that this relationship may not be as clear as once thought. Specifically, much of the literature confuses empathy (i.e., experiencing the same state as another individual) and sympathy (i.e., understanding, but not experiencing another’s state) sometimes capturing both. So we do not really know if more empathetic people actually are more likely to perform better, or go above and beyond for their colleagues and company. Research does, however, suggest that people view more empathetic individuals as better leaders. There is also promising initial evidence reviewed by Clark and colleagues that suggests empathy may be able to be manipulated. In the remainder of their manuscript, Clark and colleagues outline goals for future researchers on how to improve our understanding of empathy.

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