The ability to show empathy is often heralded as a mark of true leadership.

Empathy is defined as the ability to identify and understand another person's feelings at a particular moment, without experiencing them yourself. (If you're not sure about the difference between empathy and sympathy, read this.) But while we all crave empathy from others, why do we find it so difficult to demonstrate ourselves?

A big factor holding us back is what's called 'the perspective gap'. Adam Grant wrote about this commonly shared trait in his 2013 best seller, Give and Take.

What's the perspective gap? Grant explains: "When we're not experiencing a psychologically or physically intense state, we dramatically underestimate how much it will affect us. For instance, evidence shows that physicians consistently think their patients are feeling less pain than they actually are. Without being in a state of pain themselves, physicians can't fully realize what it's like to be in that state."

An experiment led by Northwestern University psychologist Loran Nordgren perfectly illustrates the surprising nature of the perspective gap:

Individuals were instructed to predict how painful it would be to sit in a freezing room for five hours. A first group made their predictions while immersing an arm in a bucket of warm water. A second group made their judgment while holding an arm in a bucket of ice water. Who do you think expected to feel the most pain in the freezing room?

As you probably guessed, it was the cold water group. People with an arm in ice water felt that the freezing room would be 14 percent more painful than those with an arm in warm water. But what's really interesting is what happened when a third group was tested.

This set of people also stuck one of their arms in a bucket of ice water. Then, they took the arm out and waited ten minutes before estimating how painful it would be in the freezing room.

The result? Their predictions were identical to the warm water group. Having experienced ice cold temperatures just ten minutes earlier, they couldn't effectively remember the degree of pain once they were no longer exposed to it.

The perspective gap is one reason why it's so difficult to put ourselves in a colleague's shoes, even if we've experienced a similar situation. Not to mention that a slight change in circumstances (like our colleague's experience level or a change in process) can play a large role in our perception of the problem.

So, how do you bridge the perspective gap?

First, as employees and team members come to you to explain their troubles, don't view them as complainers. Consider working alongside them for a period of time to truly understand what's going on, as viewed from their perspective.

Inspiring empathy in others can be a difficult task, though. Remember Nordgren's experiment: The third group forgot what it felt like to have an arm in cold water in just a few minutes. Here's where a second tactic might help.

In his interesting (and entertaining) TED talk 'As Work Gets More Complex, 6 Rules to Simplify', BCG senior partner Yves Morieux cites the example of an automotive company who struggled with cutting costs related to 'repairability', or making cars easier to repair.

For example, let's say a new car is under warranty, and needs a light repaired. If the mechanic has to remove the engine to access the lights, the car has to stay one week in the garage instead of two hours, and the warranty budget explodes.

Getting designers to show consideration for those taking care of warranty problems proved difficult. Initially, the company attempted a process-based solution, designing 26 new KPIs (including a 'repairability' scorecard and incentive), along with variable compensation.

The result? In the end, the process had almost zero impact. So the company decided to try something different.

The next time around, design engineers were informed that in three years (once the car was launched on the market) they would move to the after sales network and take charge of the warranty budget. In essence, they would deal with any problems caused by their own design.

This inspired what I like to call 'self-empathy'--empathy for your future self. The designers were moved to invest extra effort now to promote easy repairability later, since they were the ones who would have to deal with negative consequences.

Although very different in concept, the goal of these two methods is the same: See things from another perspective.

When you and your team can empathize with each other's point of view, it encourages all to keep trying. Additionally, employees who receive empathy are more likely to show it to others.

In the second method, creating a situation of self-empathy encourages individuals to think outside the box, and consider factors they wouldn't have otherwise.

Where are the perspective gaps in your organization? Work on identifying and eliminating them, and you'll create an environment that fosters true cooperation.

Published on: Apr 29, 2015
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