FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

July 30, 2015

The Trait of Empathy in Compliance

EmpathyCan you empathize with those who work for you, around you and those you report to? While many leaders, particularly those who might be labeled the ‘command and control’ type seem to think that empathy is a negative; I think that it is an important habit for any Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner to not only practice but also master. Recently there were a couple of articles in the New York Times (NYT) that discussed this character trait and I found them useful to consider for the leadership toolkit of the CCO or compliance profession.

The first was by Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht and William A. Cunningham, entitled “Empathy is Actually a Choice” and the second was in the Corner Office section by Adam Bryant, entitled “Is Empathy on Your Résumé?”, in which Bryant profiled Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder and chief executive of Slack, a communication service for businesses. The first piece focused on research by the authors and the second was Bryant’s weekly piece on business leadership.

The researchers noted, “While we concede the exercise of empathy is, in practice, often far too limited in scope, we dispute the idea that this shortcoming is inherent, a permanent flaw in the emotion itself…we believe that empathy is a choice that we make to extend ourselves to others. The “limits” to our empathy are merely apparent, and can change, sometimes drastically, depending on what we want to feel.” The authors ended by stating, “Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason. Yes, there are many situations in which empathy appears to be limited in its scope, but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.”

Bryant’s article on Butterfield and his leadership style brought these concepts home. Most interestingly, Butterfield began by self-disclosing, “I’m good at the leadership part. But I’ve always said that I’m a terrible manager. I’m not good at giving feedback. People are like horses — they can smell fear. If you have a lot of apprehension going into a difficult conversation, they’ll pick up on that. And that’s going to make them nervous, and then the whole conversation is more difficult.”

Another insight on leadership was something as simple as meetings. Butterfield said that “if you’re going to call a meeting, you’re responsible for it, and you have to be clear what you want out of it. Have a synopsis and present well. At the same time, if you’re going to attend a meeting, then you owe it your full attention. And if it’s not worth your attention, then say so — but don’t be a jerk about it — and leave the meeting.” So more than simply taking responsibility for one’s own time, he put out the empathy to allow you to consider how your agenda (or lack thereof) may have negative repercussions on others on your team or in your organization.

Another interesting insight from Butterfield were his thoughts on empathy as it related to leadership. This is a sought out trait for employees, as early as in the interview process. He said, “When we talk about the qualities we want in people, empathy is a big one. If you can empathize with people, then you can do a good job. If you have no ability to empathize, then it’s difficult to give people feedback, and it’s difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder.”

Similarly to his examples around meetings, Butterfield believes that empathy can express itself as courtesy. He said, “One way that empathy manifests itself is courtesy. Respecting people’s time is important. Don’t let your colleagues down; if you say you’re going to do something, do it. A lot of the standard traits that you would look for in any kind of organization come down to courteousness. It’s not just about having a veneer of politeness, but actually trying to anticipate someone else’s needs and meeting them in advance.”

I found it interesting that on the same day in the same newspaper, theory not only met practice but the practice had a business application. For those out there who feel leadership skills are ingrained into your DNA, the authors pointed out “Likewise, in another recent study, the psychologists Karina Schumann, Jamil Zaki and Carol S. Dweck found that when people learned that empathy was a skill that could be improved — as opposed to a fixed personality trait — they engaged in more effort to experience empathy for racial groups other than their own. Empathy for people unlike us can be expanded, it seems, just by modifying our views about empathy.”

Yet for the CCO or compliance practitioner, Butterfield pointed out specific areas where the trait of empathy can yield great respect for you and your position in any corporation. People rarely think of courtesy and respect as leadership skills but if you can bring these to bear in your compliance practice, you can garner greater influence as not only someone who cares but someone who cares and gets things accomplished. For any corporate disciple which relies on influence to succeed these simple tools can go a long way to providing to you a wider manner to impact corporate culture, become a trusted partner and be a part of any significant business conversation earlier rather than later in the game.


This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2015

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