Leaders Need This Skill To Ask The Right Questions

Empathy—that seven-letter word seems to be everywhere these days. It’s all over the pages of the Washington Post, it’s being “engineered” at developer boot camps, and it’s even coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States (not for the first time).

Barack Obama, reflecting on recent conflicts and crises and tragedies, asked “that we choose empathy over indifference, and that our empathy leads to action.”

Why is empathy garnering the attention of leaders and the business world? It turns out that empathy is a powerful motivator, but is often underutilized.

The latest neuroscience research suggests that 98% of people have the ability to empathize, but too few do in practice. For philosopher Roman Krznaric, that means we’re unable (or find it very difficult) to take action against what President Obama called “destructive” forces, including terrorism, civil conflict, and genocide.

The good news is that we’re born with the capacity to empathize: Our brains develop to sense what other people are thinking and feeling—a unique trait of the human species.

“That two strangers could meet, and for no particular reason, act cooperatively for an hour—that’s unheard of outside of humans,” neuroscientist Rebecca Saxe toldMIT Technology Review. “Our extraordinary social lives and our hugely complex cognitive capacities combine to make human social cognition distinctive.”

According to Krznaric, “Empathy is something that can make you a more creative thinker, improve your relationships, can create the human bonds that make life worth living. But, more than that, empathy is also about social change—radical social change.”Saxe’s research underscores that empathy is more than just a buzzword. And it’s about more than just morality. Empathy is the underrated, hard-to-master skill that can change the world for the better, especially if we recognize empathy as a key facet in what Krznaric calls “the art of living.”

Empathy can enable people to become productive and purposeful problem-solvers. The key to harnessing that power is teaching people to think with a “people first” point of view, according to acclaimed industrial designer Bill Moggridge, who is a strong advocate of “human-centered design.”

“If you look at people who are going to business schools, they tend to start with a business proposition,” Moggridge told Debbie Millman in 2010, “but in order to innovate successfully, they have to find the right technology and the right customers.”

“If you look at people in science and technology, they tend to start with a new technology, which is true of many Silicon Valley companies. Then they go to a venture capitalist and try to get some money, and they think about what kind of customer is right for the product.”

Moggridge would likely consider that type of strategy to be backwards thinking. So too would architect and educator Cedric Price, who famously said, “Technology is the answer, but what was the question?”

Putting “people first” in the innovation process allows leaders to ask the right questions from the start. But today in most schools—where tomorrow’s leaders are spending about half of their waking hours—students don’t get that “people first” perspective and too often miss the big picture and systems-level analysis. Correct answers are valued more than smart solutions and the all-too-important process of real-world problem-solving. That means that students don’t graduate with the skills they need to be changemakers—“soft skills” like critical thinking, leadership and, of course, empathy.

That’s bad for business. And bad for future job prospects.Students actually learn that caring for others isn’t nearly as important as personal success and achievement, according to aHarvard Graduate School of Education report. They’re not only failing to ask the right questions (the ones that matter), but they are also failing to appreciate increasingly rare human experiences.

“People with empathy have stronger interpersonal connections, and are more eager to collaborate, effectively negotiate, demonstrate compassion, and offer support, wrote Gayle Allen and Deborah Farmer Kris on KQED’s MindShift. “They’re team players, and employers recognize this.”

It’s no surprise then that empathy might just be the number one job skill by 2020. Meg Bear, group vice president of the Social Cloud at Oracle ORCL -0.05%, called out empathy as “the critical 21st century skill.” If young people are serious about chasing personal success and achievement, they’ll need to master empathy. Like any skill or muscle, empathy can be learned and strengthened.

Communities can adopt this new “paradigm for growing up.” Already, there is acohort of schools doing just that. But it won’t be enough to teach empathy in schools. Parents, educators, and CEOs must work to close the empathy gap, everywhere. The potential gains for society are too huge to ignore.

When empathy becomes a skill that is widespread throughout the world, we might eventually see nations practicing peace across borders, protecting ecosystems that people share and depend on, and virtually eradicating extreme poverty—we already have the means to do this, says world-renowned economist Martin Ravallion, but we still lack the will.

Empathy might even lead individuals to challenge century-old prejudices, in big ways and small. For example, football fans of the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings (forever at war) might stop coming to blows and realize that they’re not so different after all. More important, beyond the gridiron, millions of people would come to realize that while they may look different than their neighbors, wear different types of clothes, or cook with different tools, they’re on the same team in the game of life.

For more about solutions that activate empathy to create change, follow the Building Vibrant Communities Challenge and #PackardEmpathy. This post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

Image caption and credit: President Barack Obama welcomes Israeli President Shimon Peres in the Oval Office. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)