Bridging Borders: The Vital Role of Empathy in Global Mobility

If there’s one word that a global mobility professional needs to do his or her job, it’s empathy. Their success truly hinges on their ability to work with other people they haven’t met  — the relocating hired employee or assignee that they deploy to their other client, the employer.  

Empathy is not really common in the corporate world. But if there’s one argument to convince an employer why it’s essential for companies, one only has to acknowledge the value of empathy when good communication skills transpire. A global mobility professional should be able to distinguish between an emotional conversation and a practical conversation, to borrow Charles Duhigg’s insights in his book, Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection. Here’s a simple method:

  • Ask a good question 
  • Repeat back what you heard in your own words 
  • Ask if you got it right

Power-distance countries

Not too long ago in 2016,  the Center for Creative Leadership’s study pointed to applying more emphasis on empathetic leadership in an organization, because it indicated growth in job performance. But the research shows that the relationship between empathy and performance is stronger in some cultures than others. They’re called power-distance countries. Power distance is defined as “the degree to which members of an organization or society expect and agree that power should be stratified and concentrated at higher levels of an organization or government.” 

Cultures with high power distance believe that power should be concentrated at higher levels. Such cultures believe that power provides harmony, social order, and role stability. China, Egypt, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, and Taiwan are all considered high power-distance countries. Japan and the Philippines would also fit right in.

In high power-distance cultures, paternalism characterizes leader-subordinate relationships, where a leader will assume the role of a parent and feel obligated to provide support and protection to subordinates under his or her care. 

The results of the study suggest that empathetic emotion plays an important role in creating this paternalistic climate of support and protection to promote successful job performance in these high power-distance cultures.

It’s evident then that global mobility professionals who are in the business of relocating professionals from all over the world must learn and understand different cultures — perhaps even imbibe them into one’s way of life, so they can ultimately have a more genuine connection with their diverse and multiracial clients. 

The study analyzed data from 6,731 mid- to upper-middle-level managers in 38 countries.  

Different empathy approaches

Each country has a different take on empathy.

In Japan, for instance, there’s the phrase omoiyari (omoi is thought, yari means give or send), which has no actual equivalent word in English, except to say that it means to give your thoughts to others. 

With omoiyari, sympathy and empathy go hand in hand with thoughtful action. It boils down to being able to anticipate someone’s needs and providing for them ahead of time. 

This could be the one secret that makes Japan seemingly ahead of everyone else when it comes to working harmoniously — and efficiently. 

It’s also good to observe how other countries have their own empathy method, like the bayanihan spirit they have in the Philippines which is quite different from Japan’s as it is more about emotional openness. Filipinos are generally open about expressing emotions that prompt empathetic understanding. This helps expats open up and be more sociable in the process.

Global mobility professionals should also be aware of how empathy works for the Chinese and Indians — the predominant types of foreign workers in the Bay Area outside of Filipinos.

The Chinese have the Confucian concept of humaneness which involves empathy and compassion — the moral obligation to help each other, whereas the Indians have the Hindu concept of daya — the strong recognition and feeling for the suffering of others.

As global mobility professionals are exposed to these different cultures, they should be aware deep down how to make sure that they empathize with their client’s cultural background. 

Hard to measure empathy in job performance

“Most of our success is dependent on how we work with other people, and at the core of how we work with other people is communication,” Duhigg says in his book.

Duhigg researched why some people are so much better at communicating and connecting with people than others, and he discovered that personality doesn’t matter, it’s understanding how conversations work and how to show the other person you want to respond to them.

The reason empathy plays little to no importance in many companies is because it’s a soft skill that’s hard to measure; it’s overlooked as a performance indicator even all the way to the top management. Most American companies rely on sales or the bottom line as its yardstick for success. 

However, that has to change somewhat, especially in this day and age when companies are letting go of thousands of people in a crude way — by cold email or virtual conference call, not in person — and people are still recovering from the devastating effects of COVID in their lives.

It remains to be seen if empathetic leadership will be overshadowed by the strong current of automation and artificial intelligence in the corporate world, where technology is getting more attention and priority than nurturing talents in the job market. 

Says Duhigg, “We want to connect; it’s part of our neurology. When we have a real and meaningful conversation, it feels wonderful. The reason it feels wonderful is because we’ve evolved to want to have that connection. So, anyone who learns the rules of how to connect better and more easily, will be better at life.” 

Even amidst the turmoil AI presents.