Can empathy play an important role in a successful career?

The business world is known for its often cutthroat and competitive nature. But at a panel discussion in Arlington on Thursday, four business leaders made the case that compassion, rather than killer instinct, might be the most important quality an employee can bring to his or her job.

By incorporating empathy into the way one does business, they said, one can exhibit better leadership, make better products and improve their understanding of customers and colleagues.

“If you can find the discipline and energy to shut up and listen, you’re going to learn aspects of your failure that you had no clue about,” said Ángel Cabrera, a panelist and president of George Mason University.

The event, presented by George Mason University and Arlington Economic Development, sought to make the case for bringing more compassion to the workplace, but also to call attention to the challenges that sometimes make it difficult to do that.

Carly Fiorina, a panelist and former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, emphasized that large bureaucracies, including both business and government, have a particular challenge when it comes to fostering empathy. Her own leadership of HP had been a frequent target of criticism since the firm shed thousands of jobs on her watch as it merged with rival Compaq.

With many staffers in highly specialized roles divided among discrete departmental silos, “they also can ignore the world outside,” Fiorina said.

In today’s business climate, she said, the antidote for that problem can often be found in technology.

“Engineers tend to fall in love with their products and forget, sometimes, the people that those products are meant to serve,” Fiorina said. “Technology can be used to bring a lot of data to engineers about: What do your customers actually think? How do they experience this product? They actually don’t like that an on and off switch is in a different place in each generation, for example.”

Fiorina said she saw empathy for customers in the way the late Steve Jobs conceptualized products during his tenure as chief executive of Apple.

“Steve Jobs’s great vision was he wanted beautiful products that his customers would fall in love with,” Fiorina said. “He felt that...He wanted them to be beautiful, he wanted them to be personal, so people would have this emotional connection to their product. And he got it so right.”

It’s not just product development that can benefit from an empathetic mentality, the panel said. Julie Rogers, president and chief executive of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, said empathy is critically important at her organization, which invests in nonprofits in the Washington area. (The independent foundation is named for its founders, the late owner and publisher of The Washington Post and his wife).

“Most of the time as a grantmaker, we’re saying ‘no, you can’t have our money,’” Rogers said.

That message, she said, has to be delivered in a compassionate way, particularly when she and her colleagues think a project is worthwhile but simply don’t have enough money to fund it.

Cabrera, a long-time educator who previously taught business courses, said he has often been discourage by students who fail to grasp the importance of compassion in the workplace.

But, “you start looking back at what are the kinds of things traditionally we teach in business school, and you shouldn’t be very surprised,” Cabrera said.

As an example, he cited agency theory, he said teaches that managers tend to be “opportunistic and self-serving,” a prophecy these students might go on to fulfill.

In addition to empathy’s power in the workplace, the four panelists agreed that compassion could play a key role in creating awareness about the world’s growing income inequality problem and could compel more people to work to solve it.

“It seems to me the unfairness is blindness,” said Bill Drayton, a panelist and founder of Ashoka, a nonprofit that aims to find and invest in social entrepreneurs.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economics news.
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