by Stephen Sloan

What were they thinking?

We’ve likely all asked this question in frustration, hand to forehead.  

I was often mystified until I saw this question’s huge built-in assumption – that they were thinking at all before they acted.

Is it possible that often in the rational world of work we are acting out of our feelings and using our best thinking and data to simply justify what we feel like doing?

As leaders, it’s natural to assume our teams are making decisions using data and logic. But feelings? Thar be dragons.  How can we even start to manage people’s feelings in the workplace?

Empathy and Leadership

As a first step, it makes sense to try to understand what people are feeling at any moment.

Empathy is the key.

Em·pa·thy noun
The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
From Greek: Em = in + Pathy = Pathos or feelings

Unfortunately, in our work lives, we are often cut off from our own feelings and even more so the feelings of others. We are high-functioning people trying to deliver goods and services, not therapists, after all.  We are leaders, not friends. Feelings are messy, squishy, unprofessional and hugely time-consuming. Plus, the empathy gap we often feel between our own feelings and those of others seems unbridgeable in the constant time-crunch of our workdays.

Empathy gaps open up when we find it hard to understand the feelings of another.  Unfortunately, our feelings can separate us.  

But, can our feelings also reunite us?

A New Image To Reduce Empathy Gaps: Flip Maslow

In seeking renewed unity, our goal will not be to build bridges across dark chasms but will be to actually expand our vision such that we eliminate the apparent distance between ourselves and others.  To reduce apparent distance, we must see our commonalities.

We all share basic human needs.  

If our feelings arise out of these shared needs, might they also help us toward empathy?

Is it possible that our feelings are the product of our needs being met or not?   Ask yourself:

  • Do you feel good when your needs for health, safety, belonging, esteem and creative expression are met?  
  • Do you feel bad when you feel hungry, unsafe, estranged or denigrated?  

In 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow created his famous hierarchy of human needs to explore the basic needs and motivations all humans share.   Maslow’s hierarchy is typically drawn as a pyramid with the physiological or biological needs serving as a foundation for all the higher order needs because if we cannot breathe or are starving we don’t care much about belonging or esteem.  


image 1
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


Looking at this model, we can see that we may feel empathy for someone else who is experiencing a need similar to our own at the moment.  For instance, we tend to erase all apparent distance between each other when we are simultaneously feeling a sense of shared accomplishment like the camaraderie at the finish line of a running race (C) or shared terror in an elevator that suddenly drops a foot (D).

In our everyday experience, however, we tend to experience empathy gaps.  We tend to prefer to associate with people who are operating on the same level of need as ourselves.  Business people tend to prefer the company of other business people or others seeking esteem or self-actualization.  Teens tend to seek other teens seeking a sense of belonging. Homeless people tend to congregate for reasons of safety and a sense of belonging.  It requires effort for a homeless person to feel empathy for a business person struggling to creatively express herself just as it is often emotionally challenging for a tech entrepreneur rushing to work to feel empathy for the homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk in San Francisco (a story here).

Interestingly, we can begin to see the sources of our experiences of distance or empathy gaps if we draw Maslow’s hierarchy upside down, like this:

image 2
Maslow’s hierarchy flipped to reveal how close we are to each other when we face basic needs and how far apart we can feel when we are seeking the higher order needs for esteem and self-actualization.


Flipping the hierarchy reveals that when we move down toward more basic needs (B) our sense of shared humanity increases.  Nothing brings us into a sense of our shared humanity like shared biological needs or fear, we may be able to understand the other, but, for own survival or comfort, we may also treat others inhumanely especially in a moment of great need, stealing another’s rations or trampling another in the panic to avoid danger.  Generally, if we have time to think and feel, shared needs will allow affinity to grow. But, even those of us lucky enough to spend the bulk of our time seeking esteem and self-actualization can experience unhealthy and painful apparent distance from others (O) as in the tropes, “lonely at the top”, the hermit philosopher, and the isolated artist.  

The Bad News: Empathy Gaps Open Quickly

image 3

Apparent distance or empathy gaps can open both horizontally and vertically.  

Horizontal (H) empathy gaps open where we are seeking esteem or self-actualizing in different ways– e.g. a poet and an aspiring business titan. We might call these first world empathy gaps.  

Vertical (V)empathy gaps open between people working to meet needs at different levels – e.g. someone struggling to find safety versus someone focused on finding esteem, these we might call inequality empathy gaps.  Huge inequality empathy gaps exist today in our country and give rise to protest and populism.

The feelings that arise out of unmet needs at any level can add immediate, irrational fuel to an already disconnecting situation.  In my work, I am lucky to often be pushing toward self-actualization through creative expression. If someone brings me their need for safety, belonging or esteem, a dangerous empathy gap can open between us instantly. My disappointment at being thwarted in my creative work might lead me to meaningfully sigh or even bark at the person in a disconnecting way rather than seeking to meet their needs with empathy and curiosity.

The Good News: Exercising At Home

How can we start to close empathy gaps we experience with others?

Luckily, we can start learning to close empathy gaps by practicing a bit more empathy with ourselves.

Know thyself (Inscription on the walls of the Inner Temple at Luxor, Egypt).

Internal Empathy Gaps

We can experience internal empathy gaps in our own lives.  I can get into a Flow state working on a creative project (F) and begin to lose empathic connection with my own physiological needs (P) for food and movement.  People who die video gaming are an extreme example of this gap.

image 4

Ask yourself how you are feeling when you have a moment.  Actually, ask yourself about your needs when you think you don’t have time to spare; when you are busy using your mind to gain esteem or to self-actualize in business, ask yourself about your needs at other levels.  

Some Exercises

Ask yourself:

  • Are you feeling safe?
  • Are you feeding and exercising your body in the way it needs?
  • How might I increase my sense of self-empathy around those needs?
  • What habits might I change to better meet my own needs at those levels in the middle of your work life?

Out of your increased awareness of your own, possibly lower level needs

  • Can you begin seeing other’s unmet lower level needs more clearly?
  • Can you begin to imagine actions that might help them notice and meet their own lower level needs better?
  • How did this experience meet your needs for a sense of safety, belonging, esteem?


Stephen Sloan

Sloan Value Partners

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