Does empathy always make us more effective leaders?

by | Nov 17, 2016 | Blog

If your leaders can demonstrate empathy towards others, is your business more likely to be successful? Yes, says the Global Empathy Index, published this week. According to the index, a high empathy rating can have a positive impact on performance. However, leaders need to manage empathy in order to be really effective, says Nicky Little from Cirrus. 

In today’s world, there is widespread recognition that positive values can lead to positive results. As we saw during the financial crisis, a focus on profit over people can lead to disastrous consequences. So, most leaders now accept that empathy is a good thing. Just as transparency and honesty are now widely recognised as being much more than simply nice attributes to have, we can appreciate the value of empathy in the workplace.

As Cirrus CEO Dr Simon Hayward says in his book, Connected Leadership: How to build a more agile, customer-focused organisation, empathy can help leaders to build valuable connections with others. It provides a basic human bridge which can give you a route for developing more constructive discussions and outcomes between you and the people around you.

The ability to grasp the emotional dimension of a business situation and create resonant connections with others is an important leadership skill. If you are low on empathy, you may appear aloof and forget to recognise that other people’s emotions are important. For some leaders, this is a blind spot in their behavioural repertoire – they may not be aware that they are lacking in empathy, or of the impact this has on others. Encouraging open feedback from the people around you (and acting on it) can help to address blind spots such as this. In leadership teams, those with a high degree of empathy can also help to compensate for colleagues where a lack of empathy may be an issue.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Many find understanding another person’s concerns and responding with compassion is actually very difficult.  At Cirrus, we often address this through disruptive techniques and role-play during leadership development programmes, combined with coaching. These techniques can help to increase understanding of others. They help shift leaders’ mindsets by placing them in challenging situations while also providing helpful support and feedback.

Whether or not empathy comes naturally to you, it’s important to manage it. Empathy demands time and focus. It can be quite an effort to see things from another’s point of view. When your diary is full and deadlines are looming, taking time out to have a considerate conversation with a colleague can be quite a challenge – especially if you are the kind of task-focused leader who prefers everything to move at quite a pace.

Writing in Harvard Business Review earlier this year, Professor Adam Waytz from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management suggested that empathy can become ‘too intense’. His own and others’ research demonstrates that while empathy is essential to leading others, leaders need to recognise its limits and be aware that empathy can actually impair performance.

Why? Well, at times it can be exhausting.  It can deplete emotional resources. Jobs that require constant empathy can lead to ‘compassion fatigue’, a buildup of stress that leaves leaders unable to empathise at all.

It’s also important to recognise that even the most compassionate leader does not have an unlimited supply of empathy to draw on. In fact, research has shown that people who are very empathetic at work can find it so draining that by the time the working day is over there is little empathy left for family and friends, leading to a very unhealthy work/life balance.

Empathy can also make us less impartial. Because it requires us to see things from another person’s point of view, it can sometimes skew our perspective. To avoid lapses in judgement, it’s important to retain objectivity.

So, what’s the solution? Here are ten top tips that will not only help to develop empathy, but also to manage it so you can provide positive support to others without draining your energy.

Ten top tips for managing empathy

1. Ensure empathy is part of everyday conversations. Ask people how they feel. When leaders connect to teams through ongoing dialogue, it’s much easier to spot and raise issues before they become big problems.

2. Think beyond your organisation’s mission and values statement. Embed empathy in your company culture through day-to-day behaviours.

3. Encourage genuine perspective taking. Try to understand others’ point of view, and help colleagues to do the same. This can help to overcome frustration.

4. Support managers who care about others. Show that you value the ability to demonstrate compassion.

5. Develop listening skills. Be attentive, open minded and aware of non-verbal clues.

6. Share responsibility. If you need to support your immediate team, ensure others are focused on the needs of other groups such as customers, suppliers, or internal stakeholders.

7. Be aware of cultural differences. The ability to empathise with sensitivity is particularly important for leaders in global organisations.

8. Give it time. Allow yourself and others space to reflect and respond with care.

9. Take a break. Leaders need time when they’re not focused on supporting others.

10. Be consistent. If you demonstrate understanding and acceptance of other people’s feelings at all times, you’ll win respect and build trust.

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