There’s plenty of research supporting the idea that empathy is important in leadership, especially in light of the smoldering mental health and incivility crises. For instance, studies by the consulting firm Development Dimensions International (DDI) have found that empathy is the biggest single leadership skill needed today. And the Center for Creative Leadership looked at data from more than 6,700 leaders in thirty-eight countries that showed managers who “practice empathetic leadership toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.” Other studies indicate empathy improves customer service, increases creativity and innovation, and diminishes burnout.
Top researchers and best-selling authors alike have argued that empathy is the most critical tool for aspiring leaders.
But I’ve come to realize there is another side to this concept of empathy, and it all points back to two things: (1) There are times when empathy is impossible for anyone; and (2) most leaders don’t come by empathy naturally, so they struggle with it and feel guilty when they fail.
When I was a CEO, for instance, I once hired a coach who had me and my leadership team take five or six assessments. The results were enlightening on many levels, but one thing I’ll never forget was that I scored particularly low when it came to empathy.
Clifton Strengths, the behavioral assessment tool owned by Gallup, notes that only 18 percent of leaders who take their assessment have empathy as a top-five strength. They also argue that if it’s not in your top five, you shouldn’t even bother developing or displaying it; instead, you should spend your time more productively, such as working on the things that make you shine (whatever your top five strengths happen to be).
Empathy, they say, is a talent, not an emotion or skill. “(People) don’t learn this ability because it can’t be taught,” they say. “It’s innate, a function of neurological wiring.”
I disagree with the idea that we should only work on our top strengths. We need a baseline competency in as many strengths as possible because the day will come — many days, in fact — when it will be essential that we use a strength that makes us uncomfortable. There are times when we need to take a risk, even if risk-taking isn’t a strength, or when we need to be methodical, even if moving quickly comes more naturally. And I do think we can improve when it comes to empathy.
But I find it interesting that so few leaders rate highly when it comes to empathy. That tells us that real empathy is extremely rare, and we really shouldn’t be surprised by that. Remember, the technical definition of true empathy involves understanding and sharing someone’s feelings. It goes beyond intellectual understanding, or what Goleman calls cognitive empathy, and involves a deeper, emotional connection.
Frankly, it seems a bit arrogant to think we can truly empathize on many significant issues. In fact, it’s not even that easy in more commonplace situations. For instance, 14.7 percent of the global population suffers from migraines, and their symptoms and triggers vary wildly. Many deal quietly with their pain, while others complain constantly. Those who have never experienced migraines might lack empathy for both groups. For those who suffer in silence, we might not realize the ferocity of their pain. For those who are more vocal, we might find it hard to imagine their pain is as severe as they are making it out to be. Regardless, we can’t emotionally understand their feelings or share their experience.
And it’s not just empathizing with another person’s pain that can challenge leaders. It’s certainly easier to share in another person’s happiness than their suffering, but who among us hasn’t at one time struggled to relate to someone’s unbridled enthusiasm?
As an executive and as a board member, I have always tried to be intentional about getting to know employees at all levels of the organization. More often than not, I don’t have to pretend to be interested in the details of their lives. But occasionally they are super excited to share an accomplishment or life event that has very little interest to me. I can stay genuinely connected for several minutes, but then my mind starts to wander and I can’t truly empathize with the joy they are feeling.
The details of your grandchild’s ability to complete his potty training were fascinating for the first ten minutes, I think, but can we wrap up the story so I can grab some lunch?
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Or what about when someone else’s success has come at our expense? Perhaps we thought we might get a promotion and they got it instead. It can be hard to rise above our personal disappointment, not be bitter or jealous, and truly share in the celebration with that other person.
When experts use the word empathy, however, I am confident that they do so with the best of intentions. What they often really mean is that we should get to know people, learn about their challenges (intellectual understanding), and treat them with respect and compassion. They should practice what author Tom Peters calls “giveashitism.”
In fact, in the articles I’ve read and talks I’ve heard, this practical view of empathy almost always follows the technical definition. They might provide an accurate definition of empathy, but then they redefine the word to their liking and charge onward to the rest of their message.
There’s no great harm in that, I suppose, and again, I’ve been guilty of it myself. The problem is, when a situation calls for empathy in its true sense, leaders intuitively realize that they cannot feel what the other person is feeling or emotionally understand what that person is going through. Then they stumble forward and typically end up stubbing their toes.
All too often this ends in toxic positivity — a superficial word of encouragement that falls flat or makes things worse. Maybe a leader tries to say something supportive, but what comes out is unhelpful or insensitive. Or maybe they say the right words but with a stiff mannerism that doesn’t really communicate warmth and sincerity.
Fearful of saying the wrong thing, or of saying the right thing in the wrong way, many leaders consciously avoid the situation, hoping it will go away. And whether they practice avoidance or toxic positivity, they fail to convey the type of support the other person needs. That makes the situation worse for both the other person and the leader.
But here’s encouraging news for anyone who knows they lack the natural gift of empathy and for those who recognize their empathy is limited: You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to know the perfect way to respond. You just have show that you care in the best way you know how.
The leadership approach described in Transfluence is all about making a positive difference in the lives of others — a transformative influence. And I believe our influence is magnified when we are helping others during times of pain. Transfluence happens when leaders demonstrate a 3H-Core where their behaviors are directed by honesty, humility, and heart. That core is essential to providing people who are hurting with something they actually need — and something everyone can give.
Excerpted from “Rethinking Empathy,” a bonus chapter to Transfluence
How to Share Support When You Don’t Share Another’s Experience
If you’d like to explore more about empathy and how to improve your leadership empathy skills, download my new bonus chapter.