Seeing Their Side Versus Feeling Their Pain: Differential Consequences of Perspective-Taking and Empathy at Work

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Perspective taking and empathic concern (empathy) have each been proposed as constructive approaches to social relationships. However, their potential distinctions, limitations, and consequences in task contexts are not well understood. We meta-analytically examined 304 independent samples to uncover unique effects of perspective taking and empathic concern on important work-related outcomes. We develop and test a contingency model of those effects, based on three facets of psychological interdependence: outcome, hierarchical (or power asymmetry), and social category (or in-group/out-group distinctions). Results revealed perspective taking and empathic concern to have positive impacts on being supportive of others, but the effects of empathic concern were stronger. In contrast, perspective taking was an asset and empathy was a liability for capturing value in strategic interactions (e.g., negotiations). Effects of perspective taking and empathic concern were differentially contingent on psychological interdependence. The impact of perspective taking, but not of empathic concern, was attenuated or reversed under negative outcome interdependence; perspective-taking leads to advantage taking in competitive contexts. Perspective taking was particularly beneficial when the actor had high power, but empathic concern’s benefits were independent of hierarchy. Finally, social dissimilarity had no detectable impact on the effects of perspective taking or empathic concern, contrary to our theorizing. Overall results suggest two key conclusions. First, perspective taking and empathic concern have powerful effects on work-related outcomes. Second, each construct has its own distinctive and predictable impacts. We conclude by offering practical suggestions for improving workplace interactions through perspective taking and empathic concern.

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