May 23, 2019

Empathy – A Stealth Leadership Skill or Career Pitfall?

In today’s leadership environment, a high premium is placed on skills of emotional intelligence, including empathy.  There is good reason for this, but empathy is a tool for leaders to approach with caution.  Let me explain.

What is empathy?

If an organization is trying to manage change, create high-performing teams, and achieve complex outcomes, building trust is a core and necessary component of the skillset needed from its leaders. In order to build trust, empathy, or “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling” is a necessary tool in the leadership toolkit.

Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, describes three different kinds of empathy, based on the work of Paul Ekman.  This framework involves a kind of continuum:

  • cognitive empathy, which is about awareness of what others are feeling and thinking
  • emotional empathy, which is about not just knowing but also actually feeling what someone else is feeling
  • compassionate empathy, which involves awareness and feeling, but also a desire to help if we can.

As you can see, empathy is complicated.

What isn’t empathy?

It’s easy to confuse empathy with other characteristics.  In this short video, Brene Brown brilliantly explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.  While empathy is feeling with someone; sympathy is about trying to make something better without sharing in the emotional experience.  Empathy is also not the same thing as compassion.  Compassion is the feeling that arises when we witness another’s suffering, while empathy requires that we feel the suffering and communicate it to the other.

Can empathy be overused or misused?

Many leaders understand they need empathy to gain trust, and trust is needed to maximize a high-performance team. In addition, empathy comes naturally to many of us, and that’s not a bad thing. However, it is a tool to use with caution.

Overuse of empathy by leaders means they may too easily take on the problems of others, making themselves the responsible party or the “owner” of others’ problems.  Not only can this can be exhausting, it compromises employees’ development, and can lead to difficulties with appropriate boundaries in the workplace, overcommitment and being taken advantage of.  Being empathetically reactive can endanger trust you are trying to build.

Sometimes, having empathy as a default behavior means that a leader fails to set appropriate expectations and hold others accountable.  If we over-identify with others’ problems or are seen as making decisions based only on compassion for our team without holding ourselves accountable for the outcomes of this behavior, we may ultimately fail to meet business objectives.  Empathy must be balanced with other leadership characteristics.

A particular challenge for women

In addition to these difficulties, over-reliance on empathy as a leader is a particular pitfall for women leaders.  The idea of a “gender penalty” has been described in relationship to women and the pay differential in many workplaces, with anger and likeability and thought to contribute to challenges faced by women at the highest levels of leadership in our society.

And yet, on the other side of this coin, there is also a penalty for women who are seen as overempathetic.  They are often labeled as “too soft,” or overly concerned about feelings, even though they are expressing behaviors in the workplace that society values among women (and men) in other settings.  Unfortunately, this can limit leadership opportunities by contributing to perceptions that a woman isn’t strong enough to lead.

Cultivating empathy and its use

Empathy and its appropriate use can be learned, and these skills can predict success as a leader.  This monograph from the Center for Creative Leadership summarizes the data, demonstrating that leaders whose subordinates perceive them as empathetic are more likely to be rated as successful by superiors.  It also suggests several strategies for learning and practicing empathy:

  • Practice listening to understand rather than listening to respond
  • Learn skills and techniques of active listening
  • Encourage compassion in the workplace
  • Teach people to take the perspective of the “other” in difficult situations

With regard to appropriate use of empathy, ask yourself, “Am I taking on ownership of the problem,” and “do I default to empathy when another skill might be better used?”  Simple awareness will move you in the right direction to ensure you are using empathy the right way — without getting swept away by someone else’s feelings.

How do you bring empathetic behavior to the workplace?

And have you experienced positive or negative consequences for doing so?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Last updated May 22, 2019

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