August 14, 2023

Social Sensitivity And Empathy: Key Traits for Customer Service Excellence


The objective of the experiment was to measure group intelligence. It involved 699 people placed into teams of two to five. The tasks included brainstorming, moral reasoning, puzzle-solving, typing and negotiating. The study was led by Harvard-trained Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior & Theory, Anita Williams Woolley of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

At the end of the experiment, the groups were marked on how well they perform their tasks. An overall score for group intelligence was then assigned to each group. Contrary to the expectations of the researchers, the combined intelligence of group members had very little to do with the overall performance of the group.

According to Woolley, the findings were surprising since it turned out that “neither the average intelligence of the group members nor the intelligence of the smartest member played much of a role in the overall group intelligence.” The greatest contributor to the group’s performance was rather a less-studied aspect of group dynamics—social sensitivity. The findings of the study which were published on 29 October 2010 in SCIENCE magazine makes for some interesting reading.

In another study carried out in 2012 on students who had been given semester-long projects, researchers found that “team social sensitivity is highly correlated with successful team performance.” In a report presented during the 43rd ACM technical symposium on Computer Science Education in 2012, the researchers suggested that the concept of social sensitivity was one that had to be taken seriously since it affected productivity, either positively or negatively.

Social sensitivity has been defined as “the personal ability to perceive, understand, and respect the feelings and viewpoints of others.” Others have simply defined social sensitivity as “the ability to read and react to people’s emotions.” Another phrase that is synonymous with social sensitivity is “empathic ability.” Empathy has been defined as one’s ability to sense the emotions of others and to place oneself in another’s shoes.

Regular readers of this column know that I have always insisted that the provision of great customer service involves teamwork. Customer service is a team sports. No matter how caring an individual is, she will need the support of other colleagues to provide customers with that exceptional experience. Since it is teamwork, it means that the individuals in the team have an important role in the success of group. It is said that the quality of an organisation’s customer service can never exceed the quality of the people providing the service. Rightly so.

As far as I am concerned, the findings of the preceding studies prove one very important thing. In recruiting employees, especially those who will provide customer service or provide customer support, it is important that individuals with high social sensitivities or empathic abilities are considered.

The questions that will naturally arise from this will be: How does one go about measuring social sensitivity? How can a headhunter correctly assess if the individual sitting in front of her is socially-sensitive? What are the signs that one must look out for in individuals vying for customer-handling position? Researchers have grappled with this for years and have come out with a number of ways of measuring the empathic ability or social sensitivity of individuals. One such measure is Hogan’s Empathy Scale. Then there is the Questionnaire Measure of Emotional Empathy (QMEE).

However before one goes into what these various measures entail, it is important to make a distinction between two types of empathic conditions—situational empathy and dispositional empathy. Situational empathy refers to empathic reactions in a specific situation whereas dispositional empathy is when empathy is understood as a person’s stable character trait. Great customer service providers are individuals who clearly exhibit these two traits. Ideally though, you are better off with individuals with the latter.

The fact is that individuals can be taught to exhibit certain empathetic and caring traits when a situation calls for it. For instance, when an aggrieved customer comes in to lodge a complaint, the situation calls for customer-handling staff to display situational empathy. Situational empathy is what is needed when customers become disappointed because the systems are down. These are the times that customer-facing employees have to learn to stay cool under intense pressure from unhappy customers.

In a good training program, similar scenarios can be created and good role plays used to teach employees how to display social sensitivity when the situation calls for it, i.e. situational empathy. It is however easy when the individuals being trained already come with dispositional empathy. Whereas situational empathy can be taught because it involves processes, with dispositional empathy you either have it or you don’t.

Individuals with dispositional empathy have the right personality to handle customers and handle them well. Therefore they are not too difficult to train. They already come to the job prepared. These are those who eventually become the customer care champions of the organization. They live and breathe customer service.

Great companies put a lot of emphasis on recruitment of the right employees, especially customer-handling employees because they understand the importance of getting the right people in the right places. These organisations understand that it takes a special kind of individual to handle hundreds and thousands of customers on a daily basis without buckling under pressure. These are businesses that believe in putting their best foot forward. They understand that the impact an employee with great social sensitivity will have on the business is way higher than that of an average employee—no matter how “experienced” the latter is.

There are other categorisations of empathy. Professor Emeritus in Psychology at UCSF Paul Ekman describes three types of empathy—Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate empathy. Cognitive Empathy is simply the ability to know how another person feels and what the one might be thinking. Emotional empathy is the experiencing of similar emotions to those being felt by another person. The third type of empathy, Compassionate empathy, is that tendency to offer one’s help when needed. This is the kind of empathy most needed at the front line. It is the empathy that keeps a front line staff from looking on unconcerned whilst customers are going through challenges.

Each of these three empathy types has critical roles in the delivering of excellent customer service. For instance, in handling customers, you want individuals who have high levels of cognitive empathy. This will help when it comes to putting themselves in the shoes of their customers. However, having cognitive empathy alone is not enough since people can know how you feel and would still be indifferent. Emotional empathy is needed.

There is, nevertheless, a downside to emotional empathy. Individuals who are unable to manage their emotional empathy might become so emotionally-empathetic that they burnout with the feelings of their customers.

Another downside to having great unmanaged emotional empathy is that individuals might end up feeling so much for their customers as they tend to lose all logic and rational thinking. These individuals might take decision that might please the customer but fall foul of the policies and regulations of the organisation.

Sometimes, emotional empathy is not what customers want at all. When a customer comes to you with a problem, they mostly do so because they want you to provide solutions. The customer will not be too interested if you just “feel” for them without doing anything about the problem.

I have realized that individuals with dispositional sensitivity exhibit all these types of empathy. With such great importance, it is natural for one to want to know how to test the social sensitivity or level of empathy of an individual. In the experiment by Anita Williams Woolley and co, social sensitivity was determined by having participants identify the feelings of people by looking at photographs of the eyes of those individuals. There is a similar test available on the Net at I suggest readers try their hands at it just to test how socially sensitive they are.

The Empathy Quotient (EQ) is a 60-item questionnaire which is recommended by experts for the measurement of empathy. Although it was originally designed to test the level of social impairment in certain disorders like Autism, the EQ Test gives a fair idea of the empathy levels of individuals. The EQ Test is available online and anyone interested can take it to gauge their level of empathy. In the very least, it will give you a fair idea of how sensitive you are.

Organisations that are keen on employing individuals with high social sensitivity or empathy must, as much as possible, try to get candidates for job positions to take these tests as part of their assessment criteria. In preparing for this article, I decided to take the EQ Test. The results were quite revealing to me. I found out that I was not as empathetic as I always thought. I dare every organization to take all its customer-handling employees through an empathy test and I am sure the results will be as revealing as mine, if not more.

Such an exercise might prove very useful as it might reveal that the organization might have placed many square pegs in round holes. If that might prove to be too unsettling, the organization can opt for that test with only new applicants for jobs. This little test could turn out to be the greatest determinant in the quality of employees that the organisation employs. Testing the social sensitivity and empathy levels of customer-handling employees might eventually turn out to the game changer.

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