S 2 E12

August 19th, 2020

EPISODE 12: Turn Empathy Into Your Superpower with Stanford Psychologist Jamil Zaki

Jamil Zaki, Stanford Professor of Psychology and the author of “The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World” joins NLI’s Head of Consulting and Practices, Khalil Smith. Jamil shares some of his biggest findings from studying empathy, and offers fascinating insights that anybody can use to build the muscle of empathy in their personal and professional relationships and create a better, kinder world.

Episode Transcript

Chris Weller (00:05):

How many times have you heard this saying? “You can’t truly understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” It sounds great, doesn’t it? And I’m sure most of us have turned to that phrase or something like it in order to practise empathy and perspective taking. Unfortunately, it’s not the best advice. When psychologists who study empathy run experiments that encourage people to walk a mile in people’s shoes, people don’t empathise. They project. They replace the other person’s story with their own, how they would feel, what they would do. So in this highly sensitive and fractured time, how do we get empathy right? I’m Chris Weller, and you’re listening to Your Brain at Work from the NeuroLeadership Institute. For this episode and the ones that follow, we’ll be drawing from a weekly webinar series that NLI has been hosting every Friday between a leader at NLI and a distinguished guest.

Chris Weller (01:01):

Together, they discuss the science of leading through crisis and what impact they’ve seen as leaders. In today’s episode, our guest is Jamil Zaki, Stanford professor of psychology and the author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World. Alongside NLI’s head of consulting and practises, Khalil Smith, Jamil some of his biggest findings from studying empathy and offers fascinating insights that anybody can use to build the muscle of empathy in their personal and professional relationships and create a better, kinder world. Enjoy.

Khalil Smith (01:37):

First and foremost, I would just love to check in. How are you doing? There’s a lot going on right now, higher education as a parent, as somebody on the west coast, as an individual, just how are you?

Jamil Zaki (01:52):

Well, Khalil, first, it’s great to see you again. As you said, we’ve had the privilege of hanging out a number of times. The privilege has been mine. We’re fine. My family and I are okay. We’re holed up here in San Francisco. My wife and I have two preschoolers and we’re together a lot, a lot more than usual. Which, is great. It’s also tough sometimes. There’s a fair amount of tantrums, and sometimes the kids get upset too.

Khalil Smith (02:18):

Tantrums from … Yeah, exactly. You, yeah, okay.

Jamil Zaki (02:23):

But we’re healthy, and we’re together. And I think those are just things that are easy to take for granted in most of life and very easy to privilege and to cherish now. I’m also worried about my students and my colleagues and people all around the world. But, I’m trying to my best to just do whatever work I can to help. Khalil, how are you and your family doing?

Khalil Smith (02:47):

Yeah. So we’re down in Raleigh and we’re also doing well. Folks are healthy. And I think to your points around trying to figure out how we can really add value, and how can we step in? And so that’s why conversations like this I think are so important. We’re really anchored around kind of the subtitle of your book, right? Building Empathy in a Fractured world. One of the first things I would love to do, because I would argue that empathy is probably almost more important now than it has been in a very, very, very long time. But the first thing I’d love to do is maybe have you kind of define, what is empathy? What is this thing that we’re going to spend some time talking about today? What should people know so that we make sure we’re in the same place for the conversation that we’re having?

Jamil Zaki (03:28):

Thank you so much for starting there. Oftentimes, I feel like there are as many definitions of empathy as there are people who have talked to me about it. And people are often very confident about very disparate definitions, so let’s start here. Part of the confusion comes from the fact that really, psychologists think of empathy not as one thing, but an umbrella term for multiple ways that we connect with each other’s emotions. And that includes sharing other people’s emotions, kind of vicariously taking on what they’re feeling. But also, trying to understand what other people are feeling and why, which we call cognitive empathy. And, sort of feeling concern for other people, wanting their wellbeing to improve and thinking about how we might help, which is a motivation we might call empathic concern or compassion.

Jamil Zaki (04:18):

So these three pieces together make up the full range of human empathy. And I nerd out all the time about the way that these pieces of empathy come together and split about, which we can talk about later if folks want. But one thing that I want to highlight to your point really is that empathy is often something that we think of either a squishy, soft skill, or even a weakness, something that makes it harder for us to succeed even if it makes us nice and friendly. But really, the opposite is true. Empathy is like a human superpower. It’s at the core of our species’s ability to succeed and it tracks all sorts of success even now. Happiness, reductions in depression and stress, attainment of leadership positions at work, and the ability to form and maintain close relationships. So empathy is more than one thing, but as a clump, this ability to connect with others is just hugely powerful in our everyday lives and maybe more powerful than ever right now.

Khalil Smith (05:19):

All right. I’m sold. Tell me, why do you think it’s more powerful or more necessary than ever before? And I’ll layer into that kind of a second question almost, which is obviously you and are connecting virtually. A number of the other times that we’ve connected have been face to face over a meal in the same place sitting across from one another. And I would just imagine that for many of us, empathy is more challenging as we try and do it virtually. So why is it important now, and what recommendations do you potentially have for how we get it right even though we need it more but it might be more difficult?

Jamil Zaki (05:56):

Oh gosh. So many thoughts here. I’ve always thought that empathy is critical, but that’s unsurprising coming from me. I drank the compassion Kool-Aid about 15 years ago when I started studying this phenomenon. But I think that one reason that empathy is so clearly or obviously important now is because people are hungry for it. I’ve had countless people in leadership positions in organisations and just people in education, medicine, et cetera, reaching out to me saying, “I’m feeling this need to connect with others because I’m not having as much of it as I used to.” And oftentimes, we notice how vital things are when we don’t have them. I mean, you might take water for granted. But spend a day without it and I guarantee that you will not anymore.

Jamil Zaki (06:45):

And so I think that many of us are feeling isolated and stressed. And in difficult times, we need each other the most. So for instance, Rebecca Solnit has written about how after disasters, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, floods, hurricanes, you name it, those moments of great collective stress, people come together. They have this urge to be helped and to help others. And that togetherness helps us heal. Right now, I think one of the major challenges that we’re facing is that we’re undergoing this global and very longterm disaster of the COVID pandemic. It’s magnetising us like all stressors do, causing us to want to be together. And yet, we’re forced in the interest of public health to stay apart. So that hunger, that feeling that there’s something we need that we’re not getting I think is alerting people to how important empathy is.

Jamil Zaki (07:42):

Which, I’m not trying to silver lining one of the great disasters of our lifetime, Khalil. But, I think that if we can use this moment or if one outcome of this moment is that we double down on our values and realise what should have been important to us all along, then this can maybe turn into a point of growth.

Khalil Smith (08:03):

And Jamil, I know you’ve had some conversations with companies that have said that really want to lean into this right now. What are some of the suggestions that you’re making for companies that are saying, “Okay. This is …” Because one of the things that we’ve talked about quite a bit is kind of focus, and David has done a lot of webinars, David Rock, our CEO and co-founder has done a lot of webinars and worked with a lot of organisations around how to really kind of for lack of a better phrase take advantage of this opportunity, take advantage of this moment to say, “We do have an opportunity to rebuild better systems and to build a better normal.” So what are companies asking for from you? Because I know a lot of the people that are joining are HR professionals and leaders and chief diversity officers and folks that are saying, “Okay. This is all fascinating, but what do I do?”

Jamil Zaki (08:45):

Yeah. I think a lot of leaders and managers are having a very clear and powerful realisation right now, which is that their organisations’ cultures could be broken in this moment or could be reborn in this moment. I mean, people throughout our organisations are feeling immense stress, loneliness. They’re caring for or worried about their relatives or loved ones who are vulnerable to the pandemic. They’re struggling or love people who are struggling with ongoing racial and economic and systemic injustice. So they’re feeling this struggle all around them and inside themselves. And they’re realising if you try to go with business as usual, you’re not just not addressing that problem, you’re sending a strong signal to your employees that you’re not there with them, that you’re not going to show up for them. And that, I think, could dissolve organisational cultures that people have spent years working on.

Jamil Zaki (09:47):

By contrast, I think leaders know that if they do show up, then they could, again, have a culture that is reborn, reinvigorated. They could have greater cohesion in their organisation than they ever have because again, struggles, for all their pain, can bring us together. So what do I try to tell organisations or leaders to do? Well, the first thing is to listen to the science. And I know that NLI thrives on this message.

Khalil Smith (10:13):

You’re speaking our language right now, “listen to the science.”

Jamil Zaki (10:16):

It’s a really important one. I think that there are so many leaders that I’ve talked with who, they elevate empathy. They understand that empathy is important and their employees are screaming it at least to us. So we hear in large scale surveys that 80-90% of employees want more empathy at their organisations. They would be more loyal, work harder for, and feel more bought into an organisation that was empathic. Leaders understand this, and so they’re putting compassion and togetherness on their walls as corporate values. But sometimes, their team members are not feeling those values being sort of real on the ground. And I think one of the reasons for that disconnect is that leaders often don’t know that much about the science of empathy. Empathy can feel like a fuzzy concept.

Jamil Zaki (11:05):

Like, “Okay, wait. So I want to be an empathic organisation. What does that mean? Do I have to hug everybody? Well, no. COVID-19, please, stay six feet apart. Or do I need to just sort of capitulate to every request that everyone makes? Can I not give people honest feedback if I’m empathising with them?” The answer to all of those questions is no. But I think confusion about what empathy is, how it works can stymie leaders who want to really deliver it on the ground. So one of the things that I try to do is really be that bridge between the vast scientific literature on empathy that I’ve been part of, sort of steeping in for my whole career on one hand, and work life on the other hand.

Khalil Smith (11:47):

Yeah. That makes a tonne of sense. And I remember back to our most recent summit, you were up and talking about empathy. And there was a connection I think that came through around kind of empathy and SCARF. So for many of the folks who have followed NeuroLeadership Institute for a while, SCARF, status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness, and you’ve really wove quite a bit of that together. So I didn’t prep you for this, but I’d love if maybe you remember any of what you spoke to before around what some of that connection that you’ve seen around kind of SCARF … because we’ve used it in solutions like include and voice to really help people understand exactly what you’re describing which is, inclusion can feel fuzzy.

Khalil Smith (12:26):

You tell people to be more inclusive and they just do more of what they were doing before. Or empathy might feel fuzzy if you’re not as steeped in the research and you ask people to be empathetic and, to your point, they say, “Do I need to hug everybody? Do I need to not give honest feedback?” So we’ve really tried to operationalize it, and I love that you do that same thing. And I’m just curious if there are any connections coming up for you as you think about SCARF or even some of what you talked about at the summit.

Jamil Zaki (12:51):

Oh yeah. I mean, I think that … So I like this term of weaving, because oftentimes we take these values that we want in our work and in the rest of our life, openness, trust, inclusivity, egalitarianism, creativity, and empathy, and we sort of separate them artificially like we’re trying to take our peas and carrots and make sure that they never touch on our plate, right? And in fact, if you look under the hood, these things are messy and totally connected with each other. I think that’s not a bad thing, because it means if you push on one, you actually can create a virtuous cycle that elevates the others as well. For instance, when leaders express empathy, their team members and employees feel more psychologically safe. They feel as though they can take risks or be creative and they’re not going to be penalised if they make a mistake.

Jamil Zaki (13:47):

Empathy also fuels more inclusive culture. So there is little empathy building exercises for instance, just taking the perspective or thinking about what people from different backgrounds with different experiences might be going through in one’s organisation opens the door to egalitarian motives and inclusive behaviours. And that’s especially true for people who are resistant to or not naturally tuned to other people’s experiences. So things like sort of redressing power imbalances, creating a culture of safety, making people feel as though they can trust the organisation are all tied in with empathy. So if you turn one knob, others tend to turn with it. Of course, there’s a dark side to that as well. If people feel as though they’re not being heard, not seen in the organisation or even worse, dehumanised by their organisation, guess what? All of those threads that we were weaving together, Khalil, start to unravel.

Khalil Smith (14:46):

Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So Jamil, I want to come back to what you were talking about in terms of power in just a moment, because I know you also just did a recent interview with NPR where you talked a little bit about power: people that are not naturally oriented to it or some of the implications that power can have. But I also wonder about, for all of us, we started off asking each other how we’re doing. And as positive as I think we both are, there are stressors. There are things that we’re dealing with that are not normal. And so for people that are saying, “I get all of this and I want to take care of others and I want to be empathetic, but I need to put my own mask on first. I’m struggling, I’m challenged,” I’m sure you’re getting that question because there is a degree of intent behind empathy in everything that you’ve described. So what are your recommendations for people that are saying, “Others? Oh my gosh, I can barely take care of myself right now. What do I do?”

Jamil Zaki (15:37):

I get this question all the time and I feel this question inside myself all the time. I mean, it’s not like as an empathy expert I never go through these struggles. I go through them constantly, as I’m sure you do too. So first, I think it’s important to, I love your phrase there, put your mask on first. You’re referring to on planes, like when people used to use those, that you’re supposed to-

Khalil Smith (16:01):

But put all of your masks nowadays.

Jamil Zaki (16:05):

Exactly. That you’re supposed to protect yourself or make sure you’re doing okay before you try to help others. I mean, I think it’s not always so serial. I think we’re constantly needing to check in with ourselves and with others. But it’s certainly true that one cannot pour out of an empty cup. And especially people in management positions often reach out to me and say, “I’m just so depleted. How do I possibly show up for my team members?” So first, I think self care is critical. Empathy starts at home. It’s not just self care like bubble baths and chocolate, although I love both of those things.

Khalil Smith (16:43):

The weekend is coming up, I promise nothing.

Jamil Zaki (16:46):

But it’s also self compassion. It’s facing and acknowledging our own struggles, our own suffering, and showing ourselves the kindness that we would show to others. I think one really interesting irony about empathy is that it’s often easier to show it to people we care about than it is to ourselves. We’re often harder on ourselves. We expect more of ourselves and we give ourselves less leeway, and that can be problematic, because if we exhaust ourselves, as you’re saying, we won’t be able to show up for others. So I think self compassion, critical as a first step to caring for others.

Jamil Zaki (17:22):

The second thing, Khalil, to go back to the different pieces of empathy, so we talked about one piece of empathy, emotionally sort of catching other people’s feelings. And another, having a motivation to improve their wellbeing. Emotional empathy versus empathic concern or compassion. It turns out that these have different effects on burnout. So I’ve studied this a lot in healthcare professionals like nurses, social workers, and physicians. And what you find over and over again is that when people chronically take on other people’s pain, they burn out. But when instead we can feel for people without feeling as they do, sort of cultivate good will without feeling every single thing that other people do, we can actually empathise more sustainably.

Jamil Zaki (18:10):

And then the last thing that I’ll say is that I think that sometimes people in management tell me, “I’m going through this. It’s really hard for me to help other people.” Well, remember that what you’re going through might be what your team members are going through as well, or at least similar to it. Oftentimes, expressing vulnerability and sharing our own struggles can open the door for others to share theirs and create a mutually sustaining connection, one that doesn’t feel draining but instead feels replenishing because we can support each other.

Khalil Smith (18:43):

Love it. You were talking just a moment ago about leaders. So How Power Erodes Empathy, And The Steps We Can Take To Rebuild It. So tell me a little bit about kind of what you spoke about here, and what should we know about how power erodes empathy and what we can do?

Jamil Zaki (18:57):

Yeah. So I mean, I wrote an article about the same theme for the Washington Post. And the idea was really inspired by the ongoing fight for racial justice in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others. And the question that I had was, it’s amazing to see the energy for racial justice that we’re living through right now. It’s one of the great social movements I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime. But why now and not previously? And I think one of the interesting pieces of evidence from psychology that speaks to that question is that oftentimes, when people have privilege or power it actually makes it harder for them to empathise. In organisational settings, this creates a deep irony.

Jamil Zaki (19:49):

So I said this briefly earlier, Khalil. But let me sort of revisit a point that I had, which is that empathy sort of propels people to leadership positions. So for instance, in business school settings, people who exhibit lots of empathy or nominated by their peers as natural leaders. People with empathy do tend to ascend into leadership and management positions. But here’s the rub. When people sort of escalate in their privilege and power, even within organisations, their empathy tends to fade. So the very thing that gets you to a position of power can leave you as a function of attaining that power. Does that make sense?

Khalil Smith (20:30):

It totally does. I wish it didn’t make sense, but it does.

Jamil Zaki (20:34):

One of the reasons here, and here I want to cite the terrific research of the Yale psychologist, Michael Kraus, and Dacher Keltner at Berkeley and many others is that empathy is a choice. And we can talk more about it as a skill as well I hope in a little bit. But it’s a choice that we make based on our motives. We often empathise when we are feeling lonely and really want to connect somebody, or when we value a particular person, or when we love somebody, or when we admire somebody we’re more likely to empathise them. And when we need people, we’re more likely to empathise. And one of the points that Michael and Dacher and others make is that when people don’t have privilege, for instance when they’re relatively poor or come from a historically disadvantaged group, oftentimes they face these struggles and these disadvantages that mean that it’s very obvious to those individuals why they need other people.

Jamil Zaki (21:36):

They feel a sense of interdependence, and therefore they turn the volume knob on their empathy knob because they realise that connection, social connection is a survival skill. But let’s stipulate that social connection is a survival skill for all of us. The issue is that as people rise in power, they often forget that. They feel more like, “Hey, I’ve got everything I need. What do I need other people for?” And so they don’t feel the same motivation to empathise as those without power. That’s not to say that they’re constitutionally incapable of empathising. It’s really important to remember that powerful and privileged people are just as capable of empathy as the rest of us. But, sometimes it’s a question of, how do we get past the barriers, the motivational barriers that power sometimes puts in the way of connection?

Chris Weller (22:30):

Hi, me again. I want to share a story with you and ask a quick favour. A couple years ago, the NeuroLeadership Institute ran a study that asked people to engage in mock negotiations. Each person wore a heart monitor. At the end, people were told to give their partners feedback. Only, for half the participants, the roles were flipped and people were told to ask their partners for feedback. The study found something really interesting. It turned out that giving feedback and getting feedback were equally as stressful. But when people asked for feedback, both partners’ stress levels got cut in half. Their heart rate steadied and their anxiety faded. So that’s where the favour comes in. Will you give us feedback on our podcast? We created a survey that takes less than two minutes to complete, and in return you’ll free a free copy of NLI’s latest journal paper, The Fact Model: A Framework for Managing Cognitive Capacity. To fill out the survey, all you need to do is go to NeuroLeadership.com/podsurvey. That’s NeuroLeadership.com/podsurvey.

Khalil Smith (23:29):

That’s a great point, and it dovetails into some of the conversation that we had last week. So last week we had David, our CEO, and Lindsay-Rae McIntyre, the chief diversity officer of Microsoft, and we talked a bit about allyship and what that means. And David spoke a little bit about power and how power influences kind of goal orientation versus people orientation. And one of the things that we talk about quite a bit is that power is this idea of asymmetric control over valued resources. Sometimes, we think about power and we get a very particular image in our mind of like, “Oh, that person is powerful or that’s what a powerful demographic looks like,” when in reality, power can be transient. You can be powerful in certain situations and not in others. And you can have hierarchy within an organisation. There are some people that have control over resources that other people don’t have.

Khalil Smith (24:22):

And so I think sometimes we look at or listen to some of what you were just saying, or look at people in the organisation and say, “Oh, well, those people are probably struggling with that thing that Dr. Zaki just spoke about,” when in reality we may be powerful in certain scenarios and certain situations and maybe not so much in others. And so the things that you say absolutely ring true I think in a lot of ways, and they’re applicable and really relevant in a lot of ways and they do just kind of connect back to this idea of part of what we were talking about last week. Which, is actually what I want to shift to a little bit.

Jamil Zaki (24:52):


Khalil Smith (24:52):

So I’d love to talk a little bit about kind of allyship and what we’ve been doing in that space, and potentially some of the connections that you see around empathy and allyship. And just for anybody that hasn’t been with us or hasn’t been following the work we’ve been doing, allyship is when people accept that aspects of their identity have more powers than others and use their position to advocate for the less advantage. And there really is this duality, there’s both the recognition and the awareness, and then there is doing something different. And allyship is not a state of being, it’s a state of actions. It is something that you build and really continue with. We’ve talked about the idea that friendship is not the same as allyship. You can be someone’s friend without being their ally, you can be their ally without being their friend.

Khalil Smith (25:45):

And so just pulling apart these myths and trying to understand, to what we spoke about before, that in a lot of ways these things are interconnected and interdependent and related in some ways. So I would just love to know, because also I’ll kind of make a plug, I read your Time article which I thought was fascinating and loved it and would love for you to kind of react to just allyship and some of what you’re seeing in general. But also, to give us some of your guidance around virtue signalling. Because I think that I’ve spoken with a lot of folks around the idea of call out culture or cancel culture and folks saying, “Well, maybe silence is safer. Maybe I don’t want to speak up. Maybe I don’t want to be an ally because I don’t quite know how to do it really well.” And I think we hear some of the same things about empathy. “What if I get it wrong? What if I come across as inauthentic?” So I’ve just thrown a lot of that … that is like the worst reporting question I could possibly give you because there are like 90 elements in there. But, I know you will apart and give us some real gems to work with. So do with all of that what you will.

Jamil Zaki (26:50):

I’ll do my best, Khalil. [inaudible 00:26:52] terrific insights and perspective embedded in those questions actually. So let’s start with what is the relationship between empathy and allyship. Let’s stipulate that empathy is not enough. The problem that we’re facing in our culture is not only one of a lack of empathy going in certain directions, for instance from the privileged to the less privileged. It’s a structural problem that has to do with opportunities and judgements and resources. That said, I think that empathy can play a key role in both jump starting the process towards behavioural and structural allyship, and also in maintaining it. And so, what do I mean by that? Well, you defined allyship as in essence advocating for people who do not have the advantages that you have yourself. Which, I think is a terrific definition.

Jamil Zaki (27:54):

And that can be, again, through behaviours, through creating concrete opportunities, towards redressing structural imbalance. Part of it though, and I think this is broadly recognised now, is ensuring that people also have the opportunity to have a voice, to be heard and seen. Because there is not only gaps in opportunities and resources, there are gaps in visibility. There are gaps in how much people have a voice in this culture. And oftentimes, when we think about for instance perspective taking, so how much do I see the world the way that you see it from your point of view? We think that, “Okay. What we need to do is all get together and tell each other where we’re coming from and listen to each other as well.”

Jamil Zaki (28:41):

Well, one issue there is that there are structural imbalances in perspective taking. Our culture is filtered through the lens of people who have power. I think Sarah Silverman, the comedian, has talked about this. She says women don’t really need that much help perspective taking to understand how men see the world because almost as a survival skill they have to see the world through that lens. And I think you can say the same about a number of different groups with power asymmetries. Because of that, my friend and a terrific psychologist and neuroscientist, Emile Bruneau, has that oftentimes when you get people together, for instance groups that have historically more or fewer advantages and have them do sort of equal amounts of perspective taking, you think about sort of pass the baton sort of talking situation, oftentimes people in power or people from high powered groups say, “Wow, that was amazing. I learned so much.”

Jamil Zaki (29:41):

And people from groups that are historically less advantaged are like, “Yeah, I already knew all that. I don’t feel any better than I did before.” And so oftentimes I think what we need to do when thinking about the relationship between empathy and allyship is not just say, “Let’s talk to each other and let’s listen to each other,” but say, “Who’s been doing the talking and who’s been doing the listening.” Instead of ignoring that history, let’s try to balance the scales a little bit. I can stop there if you have more thoughts, or I can talk a little bit about virtue signalling as well if you’d like. [crosstalk 00:30:14]

Khalil Smith (30:13):

Talk about virtue signalling, because I want to pull apart this idea of listening circles because oh my gosh, we are hearing lots and lots of organisations say exactly what you’re saying, which is, “We want to understand.” And I think it goes right back to what you said at the very beginning, which is we keep advocating to follow the science. So I really want to take some time to actually pull apart like, how do you do listening circles well? And how do you bring people together? How do you kind of balance out some of that power? But also one of the things that I hear folks saying all the time is exactly what you did speak about, which is, “I don’t know how far down this road I want to go. I don’t know. Should I be virtue signalling and is that okay?”

Khalil Smith (30:50):

I know a lot of folks took heat for posting black squares for Black Lives Matter. And yet the question is, “Show me your board. Show me your senior leadership team. Show me what you were doing a month ago and what you’ll be doing in six months.” And so there’s a degree of, what do we do right in the long term and what do we do right now? Dave’s been talking quite a bit about kind of that balance. So I would just love some of your guidance because I found your article to be really insightful. Talk to us a little bit about virtue signalling and why you think it actually may be a positive thing.

Jamil Zaki (31:21):

Khalil, so important. I mean, virtue signalling, let’s define it. This is sort of making public statements in support of a cause that one finds virtuous or that maybe even the support makes the person look virtuous. Now, it’s highly criticised, even the term I think is a little bit pejorative these days because it seems to often smack of insincerity, or a surface level commitment to something that actually requires deeper commitment. So examples include like Instagram influencers who go to a BLM protest, take a really beautiful picture, and then leave immediately. Or the NFL commissioner who sort of is now saying the ways that they want to address racial injustice, but still not addressing the fact that Colin Kaepernick, a quarterback who’s really … he was in the Super Bowl not that long ago, has sort of not been given a fair shake to [inaudible 00:32:20] his job because potentially [inaudible 00:32:22] leadership on these issues.

Jamil Zaki (32:24):

Now, so it’s easy to in essence say, “Impugn the motives of virtue signallers.” And so the article that I wrote, by the way with my terrific friend and neuroscientist at Harvard Mina Cikara, so mean Mina and I basically said, “First, let’s stipulate, we agree. In no way does virtue signalling replace the importance of structural change and our commitments to structural change.” But we said, “Let’s slow down a little bit on deciding then that virtue signalling is bad in the main.” And we have two points that we like to use to defend it, Mina and I. The first is that it’s a commitment device. So all the way back to the great Bob Cialdini and other researchers on influence, we know that when you get people to publicly commit to something they’re way more likely to follow through with it. And in fact, the public commitments that we see in virtue signalling now can be used as accountability devices in the future. And I think people know that.

Jamil Zaki (33:23):

The second, though, is less obvious and I think maybe even more interesting. We often think about virtue signalers. What are they really thinking? Are they just trying to get cred for being a good person in this moment? Is this all they’re ever going to do? What we don’t think about enough is virtue signalees. And I know I just made up that word, Khalil, but I’m going to stick with it.

Khalil Smith (33:44):

It’s yours.

Jamil Zaki (33:46):

People receive signals. We look to the world around us to figure out what other people feel. And, we’re also a conformist species so we do what other people around us do and we follow along. We’re a herd species and that can be bad, but it can also be bad. Healthy behaviours, progress all come oftentimes from people realising, “Wow. This opinion that I had for instance that people should have more equal structural opportunities, I thought I was alone. But now that I realise it’s a majority opinion, I’m going to really move towards it. I’m going to embrace it more.” And I think that one of the things with all the black squares on blackout Tuesday and other virtue signalling sort of moments is that even if you want to say, “I’m not sure of the motives of everyone involved,” what that does is shows people, “Gosh, this is a massive social movement.” It shows people where the majority stands on this issue. And that can be a powerful learning signal that can actually help people coordinate on the road to progress.

Khalil Smith (34:52):

Yeah. There are a bunch of things that you said there that obviously jump out to me. One is something that David and I wrote about a couple weeks ago that some organisations have really kind of adopted around this idea of what we should be doing right now is listening deeply, uniting widely, and acting boldly, really getting out there and doing things. But, before we act boldly that we need to listen. And so I think this will be a natural connection for us into this conversation about listening circles. But the other thing that comes out for, and again anyone that’s followed NeuroLeadership Institute for a while knows the work that we’ve done and kind of how we’ve really anchored around priorities, habits, and systems.

Khalil Smith (35:29):

And Jamil, you’ve spoken about each one of these pieces over the course of our conversation where the priorities are some of the signalling that you’re talking about, raising awareness, getting people to care, getting them to understand that this is something that we as an organisation or we as a community or we as a population are going to be paying attention, and that that raises it above the overall din of everything else that is happening because there are so many other inputs and so many other priorities. And so we’re just saying, “Wait a second, we’re going to pay attention to this.” Now, the thing that you spoke about is something we speak about as well, which is you can’t stop there. You can’t stop at the, “We posted the black square or put out the notification or talked about how important this thing is.”

Khalil Smith (36:13):

And so then we need to get to the habits. What are the behaviours that we’re going to be doing differently? And ultimately, to your point around the structures and the systems, how are we allocating time and space and voice and resources and rewards and all of those things to reinforce that this thing that we’ve said is important as a priority and this thing that we’ve said we want people to start demonstrate as a habit, that we’re actually going to reinforce it and in a lot of ways make it easier to do that thing and more challenging to not do that thing. Because when the systems are at odds with the priorities and the habits, that we’ve said these things are important and yet the rewards are disproportionately applied or I’m not rewarded for doing this thing that we’ve said is important, or you’ve made it really, really challenging to do this thing …

Khalil Smith (37:02):

To your point, we’re a social species and we’re also an efficient species. We want to find a path of least resistance. Not in a bad way, but because we’ve got limited resources. And so if you tell me to do one thing but you make it really, really challenging to do that thing, that’s where we see the systems out of alignment with the priorities and the habits. I just feel like there are a lot of connections to some of what you were talking about and how this fits together.

Jamil Zaki (37:27):

I love that. You’re reminding me, Khalil, of the great psychologist, Kurt Lewin, who worked around World War II. And he talked about psychology the way that many of us would talk about physics. He would basically say that our decisions reflect a tug of war going on inside us between motives to do something and not do it, or motives to take action A versus action B. And really, those motives ended up turning one choice into an uphill climb and another into a downhill stroll. And so one thing that I think is critical is to say, “How do we take the things that we value, that we want in our lives and in our organisations and turn them into that downhill stroll?” And I think one point that I’ll make here surrounds I guess diversity in leadership. So I think many people have been talking about the lots and lots of benefits that diverse leadership can bring.

Jamil Zaki (38:23):

So one, obviously, it is advantageous for people from historically underrepresented to have the opportunity to enter leadership positions. Diversity also sort of supercharges creativity and builds sort of better thinking through a diversity of perspectives. But there’s one thing that I think is sort of underappreciated, which is that diverse leadership and diverse voices help everybody continue to work on their empathy by listening to diverse perspectives and having those sort of ambient in the air around them all the time.

Jamil Zaki (39:04):

One of the things that I think is the core message of my research and kind of my book is that even though we think of empathy often as a straight, something that you either have or you don’t have, it’s actually a skill, something that you can work on and build through the right practises and habits. And so one of the things … I guess if I can torture your metaphor, Khalil, in terms of habits is if we think of empathy as a muscle that you can work out, well, then what we want to do is put your running shoes right next to the door. We want to put the gym right next to your apartment. I mean, we want it to be easy for people to work out that empathic muscle.

Jamil Zaki (39:46):

One of the greatest tools for working out our empathy is listening to and really getting to know people that are different from ourselves in all sorts of ways, whether generationally, ideologically, racially and ethnically. So having a diverse set of perspectives is a natural booster for empathy. And so when we elevate people from diverse perspectives into leadership, we’re actually helping everybody continue to habitually work on their own empathy in ways that will help them in their organisation, but also help those people in the rest of their lives.

Khalil Smith (40:20):

Yeah. And I do want to get to listening circles, but part of what you’ve talked about … I mean, obviously we’ve been an organisation that has really doubled down on the idea of growth mindset. And so when I hear you say that some people think of empathy as a skill or as a trait and in reality it is a skill, it brings up this image of leaders saying, “Well, I’m just not empathetic, I never have been, I’m not good at it,” that is what we would kind of describe as a fixed mindset about that particular thing, versus the, “I can get better at this and there are some mechanisms that I can put in place. And here are all of these different things that I can do.” And I love that the idea of even the way that you structure your organisation, the people you put in different positions of authority, all of these, they have all of these trickle down benefits that we don’t always think of.

Khalil Smith (41:10):

And although obviously we’re talking specifically about this, over and over again we get people saying, “Well, what are the benefits of diversity and inclusion.” And you’ve just added another one to I think kind of the quiver of all of these leaders out here that are saying, “This is important and here’s why. And guess what? When we do this, we also get this and we also get this.” And you spoke before about this virtuous cycle, and I think there is just such a benefit to recognising the things that actually push that flywheel forward, or the things that grind it to a halt.

Jamil Zaki (41:41):

Yeah, I think that’s right. And I’ll just add to that because I know you all have been sort of really interested in the growth mindset perspective. And Carol Dweck of course, the inventor really of that idea, and she’s done such groundbreaking work for so long on it, I actually had the privilege of working with her to demonstrate in a series of studies that even just understanding that empathy is a skill as opposed to a trait gets people to work harder at it. And so this is one thing, as you’re saying, Khalil, I’ve encountered lots and lots of leaders, especially in the Silicon Valley, there are lots of people who are really focused on the tech side of things and they think that that excludes them from being able to focus on the people side of things. They kind of say, “Yeah, empathy is great. Can you teach other people in my organisation to empathise? I mean, I’m not good at it, but everyone else?” And it’s like, “No, I’m not going to let you off the hook that easy,” because this is something that anybody can work on.

Jamil Zaki (42:41):

I’m not saying that anybody can work on empathy and become the Dalai Lama. I can practise tennis all I want and I’ll never be Serena Williams or even in her orbit. But we can all get better. And I think that’s a really critical message to take home. It’s one that I have been really heartened to see lots of people picking up on, in leadership especially.

Khalil Smith (43:08):

I love that, amazing. All right. Well, I keep kind of forward casting that we’re going to talk about listening circles a little bit, so I do want to spend a little bit of time there. Because again, we’re hearing from so many organisations, and I think this connects to a lot of what you were saying in terms of power, in terms of who speaks and when and how and all of that. And so of course I have kind of my overarching slide for anything that I do at NeuroLeadership Institute, which is follow the science. There are amazing opportunities, and you brought this up unprompted earlier.

Khalil Smith (43:36):

But you have spoken a little bit about kind of perspective taking and you spoke even a little bit just now to us about how you can shift some of that. So I would love to know, what are the things that some folks should be thinking of when they think about listening circles and bringing people in and really trying to understand this moment in time and underrepresented groups and how people are feeling? What is the science that people should be following? And I can kind of speak a little bit to some of what we’re doing in the space as well, but I would love, love, love your perspective.

Jamil Zaki (44:07):

Yeah. Thanks, Khalil, and it’s super important. I’m going to thread back in the question of power and empathy because it’s related. So when you think of empathy, oftentimes, the first thing that people think about is walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. I’ve heard that phrase approximately 50 million times in my life. What does it really mean? Well, I think people believe that it means I’m going to try to take your perspective. I’m going to imagine what it would be like if I were in your shoes, if I were in your situation. And let me stipulate, that’s a great thing to try. It’s an effort at working out that empathy muscle. I’m not going to knock it, no shade on perspective taking. That said, perspective taking is far from a bullet proof strategy, because oftentimes what I end up doing is not really understanding how you feel, but rather just imagining how I, with all of my history and all of my unique experience, would feel in your situation, which is totally different than how you might feel in your situation.

Jamil Zaki (45:11):

And example of this comes from the great work of Sara Hodges at the University of Oregon. So Sara had people watch videos of people talking about their experience of their parents being divorced. And they asked people watching the videos, “What do you think this person’s thinking and feeling?” Now, here’s the trick. Some of the people who were viewing the videos, their parents were divorced as well. So they shared that life history. Other people, their parents were not divorced. People who shared that piece of life history were like, “I’m nailing this. I’m super accurate about what this person’s feeling.” Were they? Not anymore than people who didn’t share that history. Why? Because they weren’t necessarily listening, they were projecting. They were saying, “When this happened to me, I felt like this. So this person must feel the same way.” But there’s no guarantee of that.

Jamil Zaki (46:01):

And so oftentimes, when we perspective take we end up very confident that we understand somebody else, and very wrong about their real experiences. And that’s especially true in people of power. And I don’t just mean power and privilege based on groups, whether you are a certain gender or race or age or income or whatever. I also mean power in dyadic or interpersonal relationships. So I have this all the time, or I used to especially when I would give my lab members feedback on their work. I would assume that I knew their priorities because their priorities would be the same as mine at their career stage. “This person must want to be a professor, so let me give them the hard charging advice that they need to be a professor which I’m sure is what they want because that’s what I wanted.” Wrong a bunch of the time.

Jamil Zaki (46:49):

And so oftentimes, what happens in feedback situations, in intergroup situations is that perspective taking is a well intentioned effort that gets in the way of true understanding because it gives us a placebo of empathy instead of the real thing. So what do we do instead? And I think, Khalil, this speaks to your idea of listening circles, is what I call perspective getting. Instead of assuming that we know and trying to imagine what other people feel, just asking them. Just getting that information directly from them. And would you say that that’s sort of one of the ideas behind listening circles or one of the things that occurs through that?

Khalil Smith (47:28):

It absolutely is. And I love when we chatted briefly before and you talked about shifting from perspective taking to perspective getting. That is one of the most insightful things that I have heard over the past couple kind of weeks and months of thinking through and challenging and thinking about, “What do we do and where do we go? How do we leverage these moments and how do we respond and how do we react?” And to me it was just incredibly insightful. We talked quite a bit about this idea of a eureka scale from one being, “Oh, that’s interesting,” all the way to five being like, “Okay, that actually, I don’t know that I’ll ever forget that and I think it fundamentally changes the way that I operate,” and I’m not exaggerating when I say to me that is a five. This idea of, I think we all sometimes don’t realise the positions of authority that we’re in, the power that we have, the number of times I’ve worked with somebody or myself been like, “Oh, I’m just Khalil. Come on. I’m the same guy that I was 15 years ago.”

Khalil Smith (48:28):

And yet, now I lead a team of X and am responsible for Y and am fortunate enough to do these other things. And I’m still trying to put myself in other people’s shoes or trying to walk the mile to your point as opposed to taking the time to take a step back and really think about, “How am I getting other people’s perspectives? How am I ensuring?” And I think some folks do that naturally, but to be really intentional about it and to be really deliberate about it and to be really clear around the difference between those things I think is just absolutely pivotal.

Jamil Zaki (48:59):

Yeah. And I know that we’re probably needing to wrap soon, but just really quickly, I’m building these workshops to deliver with organisations around the relationship between empathy and inclusivity, and this a huge component of it, is to get people to practise perspective getting. And, if they’re comfortable I think a really powerful thing to do is to share. Try perspective taking first. Then, do perspective getting. And talk about and really internalise where and when your perspective taking led you astray to understand in your soul, in your heart the difference between assuming that you got someone right and then really listening to them.

Khalil Smith (49:45):

Amazing. All right. You do have something that I would love for you to chat about just really quickly. Can you talk to us a little bit about the kindness challenge?

Jamil Zaki (49:53):

Yeah! So we’ve been talking about how empathy is a skill, you can work it out like a muscle. It turns out that for the last couple of years I’ve been teaching a class at Stanford calling Becoming Kinder. And I really view it as an empathy gym for my students. So in addition to talking about the science, every weekend I give them a little exercise, a kindness challenge meant to push them to connect more deeply, better, more effectively. So things like being kind to themselves or really trying to understand deeply someone they disagree with. Sort of doing an act of kindness when they feel to stressed or tired to do so. And they love these challenges. And I guess I was thinking about it and this summer seemed so sad and lonely I think for a lot of people. We think of summer as a time of friends and family and barbecues and cross country road trips and a lot of that has been taken away from people.

Jamil Zaki (50:46):

So I wanted to maybe create an opportunity to celebrate and affirm human connection at a time that we needed it. So I’ve created this sort of online version of the kindness challenges from my class. And I’m doing an online event. So starting on August 10th, once a day I’ll post just a one minute video introducing a kindness challenge. One little exercise. Each one just takes a few minutes. And I’m inviting people to try them, to share their experiences using the #kindnesschallenge online and to nominate other people who might enjoy it. Sort of like think about like an ice bucket challenge for empathy and kindness. And I’m really hoping that this can be a moment of togetherness when a lot of us I think really need it. So I invite you, Khalil, and your family-

Khalil Smith (51:33):

I am all in.

Jamil Zaki (51:34):

… and your friends and anyone viewing to join us at the URL-

Khalil Smith (51:39):


Jamil Zaki (51:40):

… bitly/kindnesschallenge2020.

Khalil Smith (51:42):

Awesome. Jamil, I always enjoy time together and we’ve got some things that I want to kind of wrap us up with. But thank you, thank you, thank you so much for your time, for your insights, for your expertise, for all of the incredible work that you’re doing with individuals, with your students, with the organisations. It’s absolutely invaluable, so thank you for being so generous with your time.

Jamil Zaki (52:06):

Oh, thank you, Khalil. It’s always such a pleasure talking with you, and yeah, I’d be thrilled to join again. Let’s stay in touch. And thank you again, it’s been a real pleasure.

Chris Weller (52:19):

Your brain at work is produced by the NeuroLeadership Institute. You can help us in making organisations more human by rating, reviewing, and subscribing wherever you get your podcasts. Our executive producer for Your Brain at Work is Noah [inaudible 00:52:31], Danielle [inaudible 00:52:32] is our editor. Gabriel [inaudible 00:52:34] our associate producer, and Cliff David, our production manager. Original music is by Grant [inaudible 00:52:39] and logo design is by [inaudible 00:52:41]. We’ll see you next time.


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