Why is empathy lacking in so many organizations?
Is it seen as a weakness in leaders to be empathetic?
I’ve often wondered that when I’ve gotten hesitation and, sometimes, actual resistance as I’ve coached leaders over the course of my career in the importance of expressing empathy in their leadership roles. Some of the push back has come from a misperception that it’s a “soft skill” that isn’t important. In other cases, I think, it’s simply a situation of discomfort for the individual. Perhaps it’s a sense that showing empathy with direct reports is akin to showing one’s vulnerability which is extremely uncomfortable for many leaders.
What is empathy?
At its core, it’s the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It’s about feeling with someone, in a genuine, caring way. To understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, let’s look to Brene Brown who has studied empathy for years. Brene Brown is a well-known research professor and best-selling author who has spent her career studying courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy.
According to Brown, empathy fuels connection, whereas sympathy fuels disconnection. Empathy is about feeling WITH people. She references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman's four attributes of empathy:
Brown defines empathy as a skill, and so she stresses actively practicing giving and receiving empathy.
For a great 3 minute tutorial on how Brown describes the differences between sympathy and empathy, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw
As the video explains, empathy is getting down in the hole with someone when they are struggling. Brown states in her book Dare to Lead, “If struggle is being down in a hole, empathy is not jumping into the hole with someone who is struggling and taking on their emotions, or owning their struggle as yours to fix. If their issues become yours, now you have two people stuck in a hole. Not helpful. Boundaries are important here. We have to know where we end and others begin if we really want to show up with empathy.” It’s uncomfortable being vulnerable, but it gets easier with practice. As I’ve often said, every good HR person keeps a box of Kleenex in their office. That goes for every good leader too. Get in the hole with people, but don’t stay there.
Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
Developing empathy is part of developing emotional intelligence, or EQ. In Daniel Goleman’s book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, he explains that “Emotional intelligence refers to the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.” Leaders who have a high EQ are generally found to be more successful in their careers and better at developing and sustaining relationships. Good relationships are a key component in influencing others and in effectively leading through change. Low EQ leaders tend to struggle. The good news is that EQ can be developed.
Empathy is part of the social competency aspect of emotional intelligence. Goleman defines it further as follows:
You can watch Daniel Goleman’s explanation of Emotional Intelligence here:
Learning the art of listening with intention is a key component of developing empathy and EQ. As Goleman states, leaders “who appear approachable or go out of their way to hear what people have to say, embody this competence. And people who seem easy to talk to are those who get to hear more. Listening well and deeply means going beyond what is said by asking questions, restating in one’s own words what you hear to be sure you understand.”
Why does it matter?
Empathy is sometimes viewed as a weakness, but it’s actually the most important ingredient in sustaining long term relationships with others. Deeper, stronger relationships can help elicit cooperation and can withstand conflicts when they inevitably occur in the workplace.
The inability to display empathy when it’s needed can send signals to an employee that you do not care about their wellbeing and can negatively impact their engagement and sense of loyalty to the company and to you, as their leader.
In the 2017 Forbes article Empathy is An Essential Leadership Skill - - And There’s Nothing Soft About It by Prudy Gourgeuchon, the author states that even the US Army indicates in their Army Field Manual on Leader Development that empathy is essential for competent leadership. In fact, in that manual, empathy is listed as one of the characteristics that is valued by the US Army in their leaders.
For some, empathy comes naturally. For others, it’s a skill they need to work at, but it can be done. As the Forbes article author points out, “If you’re naturally low on the empathy scale, at least know you have this deficiency and that there is a cost to it. You can learn to check yourself and do what does not come naturally: before you act, school yourself to think of the people who will be affected and what your action will mean to them. And try to remember to not just recognize but care about that impact on others. You can also make sure you have a trusted advisor who fills in the gap in your skillset. That advisor must be empowered to stop you if you’re forgetting that there are other people in the world and that their feelings and agendas are not the same as yours – and that these matter.”
A friend shared with me recently that she was fired from her position. She didn’t see it coming. Her boss hadn’t had conversations with her that her performance had been lacking, her prior performance evaluations were all good, but she did have the sense that something was amiss. She was called to her boss’s office and told she was being let go. She wasn’t given much of a reason, but, worst of all, the message was delivered with very little empathy. The meeting was over in 10 minutes. She was devastated.
There was no expression of understanding as to the impact that this decision was having on her or her family, there was no explanation as to why and there was no real reason being given. She’s toward the end of her career and she’d never been fired from a job before in her life. According to her, the message was delivered in a quick, cold and fairly heartless manner and she was left reeling. Why couldn’t this message have been delivered differently? There are key times in leadership when empathy is greatly needed. An employment termination is one of them.
When Does Empathy Really Matter?
Having leaders who are able to demonstrate empathy as a leadership skill is critical for many reasons, but particularly in times of crisis or major change. Empathy in leadership matters on a daily basis, but there are certain times when leaders really need to step up, show up and put the feelings of others ahead of their own discomfort. This takes courage and practice to do well if it doesn’t come naturally.
Extending empathy improves collaboration with others. When people feel empathy from you, they are more likely to be willing to collaborate in the workplace because they feel a genuine effort to understand. When people feel truly seen and heard and they know you have their back, they become fiercely loyal not only to the organization, but to the individual leader as well.
What Leaders Can Do to Demonstrate Empathy
Let’s face it, sometimes being in a leadership role can be lonely. It’s important to develop genuine relationships with the people you work with to combat that loneliness and that requires a need for empathy. This applies to relationships that you have at all levels of the organization – with those that report to you, with your peers and even with your boss.
So, where do you start with demonstrating empathy in the workplace? Here are just a few ideas:
When it comes to your direct reports, it’s about balancing the head and the heart. Leaning too far either way is a problem. Resist crossing the line into becoming their counselor and know when a referral to EAP is appropriate. Talk with your HR partner if you are unsure. Remember, showing empathy during tough situations with your staff helps earn their trust.
Empathy is a critical leadership skill. It’s one that needs to be included in leadership development, perhaps as part of a core curriculum on Emotional Intelligence. This is especially important as a new generation of leaders is being developed. Reliance on technology to communicate limits the ability to express empathy and may be creating a whole generation that has a greater difficulty expressing themselves in a way that demonstrates empathy. As this generation enters the workforce and becomes leaders, this may create a new set of challenges in the workplace. It will be incumbent on employers to ensure that teaching empathy as a core leadership competency is part of leadership development curriculum. Empathy can be learned and it’s critical in the workplace.
In Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead, she emphasizes the following five empathy skills to develop:
Do you want to build your skills in empathy as a leader? As a place to start I recommend two books:
Working with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Dare to Lead by Brene Brown
Something we can all do on a daily basis is to practice listening…really, fully listening. The art of that is a key component of empathy and it’s something most of us can get better at in both our personal and professional lives.
Deeply listening to what another person is saying – and listening for the message behind the message – and mirroring back what you heard, can go a long way in making someone feel heard and validated as a person. And that can strengthen a relationship and build great trust between a leader and those with whom they have the privilege of leading.
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Laurie is an experienced Human Resources executive who is passionate about organizational culture, creating great workplaces and employee engagement.