Empathy In Leadership: The Good and the Bad

Many organizations have realized that the key to a successful business is happy employees.

So as businesses become ever more employee-centric, we’re seeing a shift toward skills and policies geared toward achieving both consumer and employee satisfaction.

The most important ways to improve employee satisfaction involve soft managerial skills. Empathy is one such skill. Empathy helps managers understand the various challenges that people on their team face and provide tangible, people-focused solutions.

After psychologist Edward Titchner coined the term in 1909, “empathy” was defined as the ability to recognize, understand, and share another’s feelings. Today the definition can be parsed in interesting ways, but this guide will explore how cultivating empathy as a leader can be both good and bad in the workplace.

Let’s dive in!

Why does empathy in leadership matter?

Each of your employees has their own background and experiences that impact how they show up at work, how issues affect them, and how they approach their professional goals. Managers and leaders must learn to understand the unique challenges that every team member faces. Whether you are a young ecommerce website with a small remote team or a large company with multiple offices, your management team will need empathy to solve problems.

An empathetic leader not only understands employees’ struggles and issues but also actively works to build relationships and make life easier for their teams. Lack of empathy among the senior management can turn away a wider talent pool and drive your attrition rate up. It also hurts team morale and hampers productivity.

Employee disengagement has tangible effects on company performance. In fact, using the 2019 average salary rate, Forbes calculates that low employee engagement in a small business (250 employees or lower) can cost up to 3 million dollars a year.

Successful business leaders know that happy employees are productive employees, which means that empathy is a vital skill for any leader.

60% of employees are likely to stay with a company for three years or longer if they feel cared for, as opposed to only 7 percent of employees who don’t.

How Organizations Benefit from Empathy

Empathy in the workplace shows your employees that you care about them, their progress, and their well-being. While employers overwhelmingly believe that empathy is a critical trait for any business, 85 percent of employees believe that empathy is still undervalued by organizations and that companies need to change the way they preach and practice empathy.

Empathy has evolved from a nice-to-have soft skill to one of the most important traits of a successful leader and a thriving workplace. In this section, we will look at three ways organizations benefit from it.

1. Encourages innovation and productivity

When employees feel that their struggles are being heard and their perspectives respected, they want to go above and beyond in their role to think of new ideas and contribute positively.

Just how do employees respond to a working environment where they feel their organization cares for them? A study conducted by the Limeade Institute, an employee experience think-tank, reveals that a caring culture makes employees feel included in their organization, which translates to employee loyalty: 60 percent of employees are likely to stay with a company for three years or longer if they feel cared for, as opposed to only 7 percent of employees who don’t.

Empathy helps humanize leadership in the eyes of employees, building trust and acting as a powerful motivational tool. Employees who feel their problems are understood and shared by leaders are more likely to push the envelope, make sacrifices, and innovate on behalf of their employer, all as a result of empathy.

An empathy-centered workplace also helps create a more productive workforce as employers proactively try to find solutions to employee concerns and problems. Empathetic leaders understand that when you take good care of your employees, the company benefits through better quality work.

2. Fosters Collaboration

When leaders create an empathetic workplace, teams can collaborate more effectively thanks to enhanced understanding of and support for one another. This is particularly important for teams working remotely, across time zones, or across generational gaps. Focusing on empathy can help close these distances by contributing to feelings of mutual respect and understanding.

People also work better when they can see the positive impact they have on others. An article by Harvard Business Review makes this point with a study conducted in the restaurant industry. Chefs created distinctly tastier food when they were able to watch their customers enjoying their creations, turning the dining experience into a collaborative relationship between the performer and their audience.

So, if cultivating empathy allows your team members to better appreciate the positive impact they’re having on their colleagues, customers, and the organization, they’re more likely to thrive at work.

3. Strengthens Diverse Teams

Modern teams bring people from diverse backgrounds under one roof—physically or virtually—which creates a richer and more creative environment by bringing together a wealth of perspectives and experiences.

However, having diverse perspectives in the workplace also comes with a few challenges. Conflicts can arise within teams, hurting productivity. Encouraging empathy among team members can help everyone understand the validity of different approaches and concerns. When leaders and managers exhibit empathy in all directions, they also tend to promote diversity, which in turn attracts more top talent.

Empathy can be the key to tapping into the many benefits of a diverse team. Differences become strengths when you build a well-rounded team through inclusive processes that support underserved populations. Here again, managers must lead by example to promote and demonstrate empathy and inclusion towards everyone.

Organizations are realizing the benefits of having empathetic managers leading teams. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, about 20 percent of U.S. employers have specialized empathy training for all their managers, underlining the importance of this skill. Hopefully, this number will increase going forward.

Providing excellent service to diverse customers starts with building a diverse team.

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When empathy goes wrong

While empathy is vital, it also has the potential to cause harm. I do not intend to suggest that empathy itself can be a bad thing, just that there are ways in which empathy can produce unproductive and harmful outcomes.

Here are three empathy pitfalls to be aware of:

1. Empathy Can Be a Fleeting Emotion

Any strong burst of emotion tends to fizzle out relatively quickly, and the same is true of empathy. When you listen to a colleague or team member’s problem, it might move you emotionally, but the feeling may soon fade amid the bustle of the office and distractions of a long to-do list, leaving the problem unaddressed.

Empathy without constructive solutions and the discipline to check in with your employees will not solve any problems. It can even make things worse, making people feel as though you are paying lip service to appease them without taking any action. In other words, a fleeting display of empathy is not sufficient by itself; managers should aim to seek solutions and follow up to ensure the problem has been resolved.

2. Empathy Can Lead to Poor Decisions

When we base our decisions on emotion, we can be swayed in a direction that benefits one person, group, or outcome while unintentionally disregarding or even harming another. In his book Against Empathy, psychologist Paul Bloom argues that empathy can be a poor guide for decision making. It evokes an emotional response, often at the cost of rational solutions.

It’s also possible that in attempting to empathize, leaders may misinterpret a problem and project their understanding of the issue, making things worse rather than better. While striving to be emotionally available and invested, leaders can fail to take into account that every person’s experience is different. They end up focusing on what they themselves would do in a given situation instead of acknowledging that the individual or group they’re trying to help might prefer a different approach. Such a mismatch of perception can lead to poor decisions that do not address the real issue.

No matter how well-intentioned your efforts are, a lack of awareness about the possible pitfalls of empathetic decision-making can lead to problems. To avoid this, try to be aware of your own confirmation biases (i.e., selectively retaining only those parts of your employee’s problem that support your own prior beliefs) before you attempt to analyze the situation and provide a solution.

3. Empathy Can Impact Diversity

While empathy can help diverse teams work better together, it can also make it harder to recruit diverse teams. This is because people tend to identify with, and thus more easily empathize with, people that have similar backgrounds and experiences to theirs. This natural response may result in managers unconsciously showing preference for an applicant that is similar to them, leading to homogeneous teams and a lack of diversity. Effective bias training can help managers recognize these tendencies and remind them to broaden their perspective.

4. Empathy Can Lead to Burnout

It’s difficult to empathize with a lot of people at the same time, and trying to do so eventually takes an emotional toll. For this reason, it can be surprisingly exhausting for managers of large teams to empathize with everyone.

While empathy is important, especially when dealing with conflicts, a level of emotional detachment from work can also be healthy. Managers and leaders must learn to walk this fine line to avoid suffering from burnout.

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Your Problem Resolution Process Needs Empathy for Best Results

Empathy is one of the most effective drivers of employee engagement, loyalty, and diversity in the workplace. It helps teams feel appreciated, helps them work well together, and motivates them to contribute towards organizational goals.

However, empathy alone is not enough to provide reliable guidance, and even the best intentions can sometimes go awry when empathy overshadows rational thinking. Empathy in leadership should be accompanied by a problem resolution process that’s grounded in what will work best for all involved, and in tangible strategies for putting solutions and insights into action. Striking this balance will help you channel the power of empathy to create a happier, more innovative workforce.