How can leaders strike the right balance on empathy?

Empathy is a fundamental element of the human experience. Research indicates it is biologically hardwired into our brains. Our cultures define its framework and foster it, through social norms. But how empathy affects our lives and relationships largely depends on how we develop and practise it on an individual basis.

While the ability to demonstrate empathy can prove beneficial to anyone, it is especially valuable for those in leadership roles. But there’s a caveat. Empathy has to be balanced correctly. Too little, and you risk alienating people you work with, hampering productivity. Too much, and a dark side emerges: irrational decision-making, shying away from healthy confrontation, emotional fatigue, and possibly burnout.

Before we dive into how leaders can strike this balance, let’s clarify exactly what empathy is in the first place.

What is empathy?

Definitions of empathy are surprisingly varied and often tailored to specific contexts, but they tend to share one salient element: the ability to understand and share the thoughts or feelings of another.

Based on the research of psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman, empathy can be differentiated into three categories that build on each other.

  1. Cognitive empathy The ability to correctly intuit what someone is thinking and feeling. Being able to ‘read’ people in this way can make us better communicators, as understanding paves the way for productive discourse and compromise.
  2. Emotional or affective empathy Mirroring another person’s feelings, often described as ‘your pain in my heart’. This is not just a turn of phrase: brain scans indicate that this type of empathy activates the same pain networks as distress that we experience ourselves. This skill is especially useful in building emotional connections with others.
  3. Compassionate empathy or empathic concern Going beyond simply understanding others and sharing their feelings, this form of empathy motivates us, moving us to take action and provide help.

While empathy is often used interchangeably with sympathy or pity, they are not the same. As empathy researcher Paul Bloom points out, sympathy and pity really only apply to negative experiences, thoughts and emotions, such as grief or pain. Empathy, on the other hand, is a neutral, even amoral, mechanism. With empathy, we can share in positive emotions, such as joy or a sense of achievement, just as much as negative ones.

This is also an indication as to why empathy is not always helpful. In some situations, it may even cause harm and lead to suboptimal outcomes. The most well-studied of these is compassion fatigue, which is especially likely to occur in roles requiring emotional labour. If unmanaged, it can cause cumulative burnout.

Sonia was working as a teacher and volunteering for a local non-profit up to 30 hours a week. “I liked my job, and loved volunteering, but I was completely underestimating the toll it was taking on me,” she says. “When I got home from work, I was already tired from the student interactions I’d had that day, but as I’d go on to my ‘second job’, there would be a never-ending stream of people to listen to, to empathize with, to comfort.” She ended up in a state of emotional depletion and burnout that forced her to change professions. “I was so focused on doing the right thing that I completely ignored my exhaustion until it was too late.”

Another trap, especially dangerous for leaders, is skewed decision-making founded in misguided empathy. One of Bloom’s oft-quoted examples is the story of a terminally ill girl swaying study participants to prioritize her position on a treatment waiting list – to the detriment of all the other children on that list who needed care even more urgently, but whose stories participants had not heard. A decision driven by empathy for one person or a particular concern might not be the best for everyone involved. Even worse, empathy can result in leaders avoiding a decision, or conflict, altogether – even when confrontation is necessary and would be healthy – for fear of causing a negative reaction.

With these possible pitfalls in mind, is it better to forgo empathy altogether? Hardly, since it can be such an effective contribution to both productivity and quality of life alike. For example, Dom found empathy to be vital as he started building his search engine optimization (SEO) agency. He had been working as a freelancer for 13 years and knew his field well. But now he was tackling the challenge of delegating work. When he enlisted a junior manager, things did not exactly go smoothly. She struggled to complete the projects he had assigned to her on time.

“At first, I wondered if I had chosen the right person, but then I realized she did have the skill set I was looking for – she just needed more training,” Dom recalls. “My clients tend to be in highly technical industries, and I remembered what an upward battle it was when I had first started working with them. So, instead of just giving her instructions, I showed her how I would complete the tasks.” After a few such sessions, her productivity picked up noticeably. “Now, I couldn’t ask for a better associate,” Dom concludes.

Whether empathy elevates or distracts from relationships and decision outcomes, therefore, largely depends on personal application. Which poses the question: how can leaders successfully harness the power of empathy?

How can empathy help you to be a better leader?

While empathy can be a double-edged sword, it’s an indispensable part of the leadership toolkit. It is through empathy that mutual trust, respect, and loyalty are built, laying the foundation for a healthy and productive work environment.

For example, consider how the recent pandemic thoroughly dismantled the illusion that non-work-related issues stop at the office door. To invest time and energy in building strong relationships with your colleagues is therefore to invest in future-proofing your business. You may not know what challenges lie around the corner – but you and your team will be better equipped to take them on if you have already established a resilient, collaborative dynamic.

But you do not have to wait for the next crisis to see the benefits of empathy. If the people around you feel heard, seen, understood and appreciated, they will be motivated to reciprocate the effort. This builds support, goodwill and understanding for you as a leader.

In addition, as you set an example for the overall culture in your team, team members are more likely to extend such efforts towards each other. You may notice this when team members give each other the benefit of the doubt, forgive minor failings, and cover for each other as colleagues go through difficult times.

To truly master empathy, however, you need to know when and how to employ it – and when to curb your empathic impulses. This is what I like to describe as ‘emotionally intelligent empathy’.

How can you manage empathy effectively?

Whether you are prone to show too much or too little empathy, there are a number of practical steps you can take to deploy empathy effectively.
If you find it challenging to develop or show empathy, start with building cognitive empathy. Before engaging with another person, or reacting to something they said or did, take a moment to consider what you know about them and their point of view. What’s their background, their age, their culture? Are they currently operating under stress? Are they possibly dealing with factors you’re not aware of? Thus prepared, go into your interaction with that person with a different mindset. Show yourself ready to ask questions, listen to the answers, and withhold both reaction and judgment until you have been able to better understand their viewpoint.

Then, as you interact with the other person, strive to connect to their experience rather than just the issue at hand; this will help you build emotional (affective) empathy. This is easier said than done, because we all get overwhelmed or frustrated by different things. But dismissing the other person’s feelings can easily undermine your relationship, even if you don’t express your thoughts directly – because those thoughts will come out in other ways, be it through your words, body language or actions. The key is to focus on relating to the other person’s feelings, rather than their situation.

Hendrie Weisinger, bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence at Work, illustrates this point: “If a person says, ‘I screwed up a presentation,’ I don’t think of a time I screwed up a presentation – which I have [done] and thought, no big deal. Rather, I think of a time I did feel I screwed up, maybe on a test or something else important to me. It is the feeling of when you failed that you want to recall, not the event.” By changing your default to understanding rather than judgmental, you build a bridge instead of a rift – which makes an emotional impact on your teammate and strengthens your relationship.

What if you find yourself so open to empathy that you expose yourself to its dark side? Establish healthy boundaries and be sure to stick to them. This may mean taking more breaks, engaging in recharging activities, and limiting those that are draining (such as social media). When someone approaches you with a bid for your empathy at a time you feel unable to offer it, be open and authentic about it. Ask to reschedule the conversation to a later time, when you’re in the right headspace.

When cultivated and managed in this way, empathy can have a significant impact on your life and the lives of those around you. Carmen recounts an instance where empathy in the workplace may have quite literally saved her life. “I had a 15-year track record of hard work, reliability and dedication to my company, so when I got into a desperate situation – an abusive marriage – the people that I opened up to were shocked, but also ready to support me,” she recalls. “I quietly asked my manager that if he didn’t hear from me for a day or two, to please call my father. He responded with support and kind advice, but then we quickly moved the conversation back into work topics. That helped me feel supported, but also dignified, in that I was still respected as a team member, without a ‘victim’ label.”

This fine balance between showing compassionate empathy and keeping healthy boundaries intact empowered Carmen even beyond the office walls. “When I finally left my husband, the company gathered information from me so that if my spouse tried to enter the property, he would be escorted off-site. It was an incredibly humiliating time in my life, but with the empathy and support shown by my workmates I felt appreciated, respected and protected.”

Empathy is an essential quality, one that fuels the connection between you and your workmates. It makes you more flexible and understanding, and it contributes to a psychologically safe environment where people can thrive.

Make no mistake, though: mastering this quality is a lifelong endeavour. But it’s worth the effort. Sooner or later, the people you work with will need your empathy – and you theirs. By mastering it now, you can build your skill, track record and future as a successful leader.

Ronja Jedro contributed to this article.