5 Moments of Need

Empathy Is Not a Skill…

Published On: July 8th, 2024
Empathy Is Not a Skill…

Written By: Bob Mosher, Founding Partner and Chief Learning Evangelist, APPLY Synergies

Empathy is not a skill… OK, before you rush to blast me on email for this one, give me a minute to explain (then you’re welcome to blast me 😉). This thinking has been spurred by our industry’s recent obsession with “Skills”. Those of you who know me well, know that I’m a big vocabulary guy. Our industry is infamous for inventing terms ahead of agreeing on a definition. Don’t get me started with Microlearning! Having tried to help socialize and lift the Workflow Learning discipline and the 5 Moments of Need framework over the past 20+ years, I have learned that arriving at a shared definition of a term, or terms, is one of the first steps to lasting adoption and change.

Enter “Skills”… I truly believe that our industry, and those we serve, do not have an agreed upon definition of what this word means. Over the past few years, I have looked at many “skills libraries” and/or “skills curriculum”, both from external vendors and internal L&D/HR departments, and they are ALL over the place. Maybe that’s why we find it so challenging to close “Skills gaps”? I constantly hear “Well, this gets complicated pretty quickly…”. Should it though, or is some of the complexity of our own doing? And by “our” I mean both those we serve, HR & L&D.

The goal is performance, correct?  We don’t just hope people learn, or simply know, about these “skills”.  The purpose for this global effort is to enable employees to PERFORM skills effectively in the context of getting their job done.  In our work in performance-based design, performance is enabled by the orchestration of 4 areas:

  1. Tasks – (Also known as a Skill by the way) The smallest unit of performance which consists of the steps needed to complete that task.
  2. Supporting Knowledge – Information to be understood in support of performing a task.
  3. Processes – A group of tasks that makes up a category of performance
  4. Workflow – A set of processes orchestrated in a way that represents how the work gets done.

In this context, Empathy is not a task/skill.  It is a Supporting Knowledge (SK) object which needs to be understood to perform empathetically based on the task at hand.  Many leaders understand empathy but can’t perform it effectively because they haven’t contextualized it with their workflow.  Yes, a leader should always keep empathy “in mind”, but there are times where this SK directly impacts a task – such as delivering a performance appraisal, addressing a personal crisis in an employee’s life, or overseeing a personnel disagreement within a team.  These at often “planned” or anticipated tasks that occur based on the leader’s workflow.  They go to work every day to perform tasks in their workflow.  They don’t come in to work to simply exhibit, understand, or think about things like empathy.  SK plays out in defined and observable tasks.

This is fundamentally where most leadership training falls short.  This goes back to the days of competency modeling.  We spent a lot of time (and money) grouping competencies under roles, but we didn’t take the time to map them at the task and workflow level.  That is why many struggle applying them.  If we’re ever going to help make SK like empathy, listening skills, conflict resolution, and tough conversations, to name a few, applicable we need to understand their job is to support performance, not define it.  Supporting knowledge is critical to performing a skill, but knowledge alone, and in isolation of where it’s applied, will leave our learners with the herculean, and often impossible task, of making the journey into application on their own.  A digital coach, in support of targeted training, is the solution we should be creating, not Empathy lessons and courses!


Have questions about this content or another resource on the site? Let us know!

Use this form to let us know you’re interested in scheduling a call with a member of the team. We’re always happy to discuss your current, future, or aspirational initiatives in real-time.

Register  to attend our 2025 5 Moments of Need Summit.

Subscribe  to The Performance Matters Podcast to stay up to date on all the latest conversations and guests in the 5 Moments space.

Visit  our website for additional resources: Certificate courses, Badges, an eBook on workflow learning, and the EnABLE Methodology white paper.

Join  the conversation on LinkedIn.

Be  part of the Workflow Learning & Performance Alliance.

Copyright © 2024 by APPLY Synergies, LLC
All Rights Reserved.