Dr. Sara Konrath, of the University of Michigan, presented a meta analysis of recent studies of empathetic concern, at the American Association of Psychological Sciences this past weekend. What she found was concerning. American university students are showing a distinct decline in empathy for others. The decline is most pronounced since 2000.
Why is this decline in empathy happening? I don’t know, but my hypothesis is that in our search for our authentic self, and the resulting belief in the importance of our own feelings, we have become less empathetic to the feelings of others. We are now so self-involved that we understand the needs of others less. I see evidence of this in the classrooms, as students have more and more difficulty doing group work.
Why is this a problem? Empathy is one of the five key elements of emotional intelligence (EI). According to Daniel Goleman, a leading EI researcher, EI is a better predictor of leadership effectiveness and business success than cognitive intelligence. The farther you are up the organizational ladder, the more important EI becomes. And, 71% of employers want graduates to have better teamwork skills, according to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, in a 2009 study.
There is much debate as to whether it is possible to improve our emotional competencies. However, recent research supports the idea that many emotional skills (as compared to personality traits) may be learned. A series of studies showed that graduate management education can increase emotional intelligence skills and that these skills can be maintained for up to seven years. However, difficult and challenging organizational situations may erode these skills.
Another study of fully employed undergraduate business students showed that exposure to a 12-week emotional intelligence program significantly increased emotional intelligence among those who participated, while there was no difference in a control group whose members were not exposed to the program. The program used a number of elements such as self-assessments, self-development plans, coaching, role-playing, interviews of others, critiques, readings, journaling and reflection.
So my job gets more difficult. Now I have to teach not only business concepts, I have to teach students emotional skills, including empathy. Perhaps we need to start the process of teaching emotional skills, especially empathy and social skills much earlier. And maybe we need to think about the idea of authenticity differently.
 Richard Boyatzis and Argun Saatcioglu, “A 20-Year View of Trying to Develop Emotional, Social and Cognitive Intelligence Competencies in Graduate Management Education,” The Journal of Management Development, 27:1, 2008, p. 93.
 Kevin Groves, Mary Pat McEnrue and Winny Shen, “Developing and Measuring the Emotional Intelligence of Leaders,” The Journal of Management Development, 27:2, 2008, p. 233.