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Guest Blog: Got Empathy?

Updated: May 22, 2019

By Mario Morino & Lowell Weiss, Leap of Reason


One of the people who inspire us is Mario Morino, Chairman of Venture Philanthropy Partners and author of “Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Age of Scarcity”. Morinoand his colleague Lowell Weiss also publish a monthly Leap of Reason update. Mario recently offered us this excerpt from the March update, giving a shout-out to empathy –and love – as “critical success factors” to strengthen nonprofit work. Thank you, Mario and Lowell, for showing how building Civity connects to better outcomes! –MK and PS

In December's Leap of Reason newsletter, we had the chance to shine a bright spotlight on Hamzah Latif, a youth worker who won a prestigious national award for his deeply personal and highly effective work to steer young men away from the kind of bad choices that led Hamzah to 19 years behind bars. Hamzah's story was so powerful that it made us see that we have short-shrifted a very important concept in our writing about performance: the mission-critical importance of empathy and love.

We believe a defining characteristic of high-performance organizations is that leaders, managers, and staff possess values and life experiences that contribute to a deep-rooted understanding of and heartfelt connection with the people and causes they serve. A teacher who has empathy for a struggling student is far more likely to meet that student where she is, understand her challenges, appreciate her gifts, and then take her by the hand until she finds success. The medical field is perhaps the farthest along in quantifying the link between empathy and outcomes. Studies now show that when you're lucky enough to have an empathetic caregiver, you're more likely to form a trusting relationship, and you're much more likely to follow through on his or her medical advice. Not only does this mean you have a better patient experience; it also means you get better outcomes. In other words, empathy isn't a touchy feely add-on. It's a critical success factor. Years ago University of Michigan Professor Avedis Donabedian, a giant in the field of measurement, was asked to sum up his philosophy on quality. For a hard-core data guy, he offered a startling answer: "The secret of quality is love," Donabedian said. Empathy and love don't require an oncologist to have had cancer, or a youth worker to have served time in prison like Hamzah did. Similarly, they don't require us to share the same race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, or age with the person we aim to serve. Empathy and love can and do flow across all boundaries and social constructs. Here's what empathy and love require: Open ears and an open heart. A desire to bear witness in an intense and emotionally intelligent way. A compassion for others' struggles, based on a humble "awareness that you are an underdog in the struggle against your own weakness," in the eloquent words of the conservative columnist David Brooks. Mea culpa—or wea culpa. We now see that we've been too bland and analytical in our language on high performance. The more we reflect on our experiences and those of the highest-performers we've met, the more we realize that high performance, empathy, and love are inextricably linked.


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