Are you an empathetic, or pathetic, leader?

01 July 2020

As companies work hard to start up again after having endured a sustained lockdown, leaders are being exhorted to show empathy for those who work for and with them. But that’s easier said than done as empathy has, to date, not been high on the priority list of leaders.

Before examining empathy in a little more detail, it would be worth clarifying exactly what empathy is. In a nutshell, empathy is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, to sense other people's emotions, as well as being able to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.

Psychologists have identified three types of empathy – cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy.

Cognitive empathy involves knowing how another person feels, emotional empathy involves feeling what the other person feels, and compassionate empathy involves the other two but goes one step further by taking action to help the person.

Leadership empathy has to carefully balance these three. While cognitive and emotional empathy can clearly play a key role in the workplace, compassionate empathy carries many hidden dangers. If, say, a business leader who is responsible for leading a team to meet clear business objectives according to tight deadlines allows themselves to apply too much compassionate empathy at work, they risk getting sucked into other people’s problems, trying to help them sort those problems out and then not meeting the required business goals.

On the other hand, a leader who never applies cognitive empathy will never get the best out of their team in terms of new ideas and innovation as their team members will feel insecure with someone they feel doesn’t “get” them. Teams who have a leader they feel knows how they feel will be far more willing to show their vulnerability when it comes to exploring new options.

Emotional empathy is also indispensable when building relationships as team members who have a leader they believe understands how they feel about certain things will warm to such a leader and be far more willing to go the extra mile for them.

Empathy applied in the right way therefore leads to increased productivity, more effective collaboration and better relationships. That’s because employees who feel heard and understood by their leader are far more responsive, supportive and focused. They’re not worried about, or distracted by, all sorts of side agendas that can so easily shift the focus from where it should be to minor, unimportant issues.

Empathy should, however, not be confused with sympathy, which is showing pity for someone else’s misfortunes. Sympathy can be patronising as the sympathiser “looks down”, in a sense, at the person who is the object of their sympathy. Empathy is about being emotionally right next to and with the person

To date, business leaders have not been known for their empathy. They’ve belonged more to the command and control brigade and expected employees to get on with things and keep their feelings to themselves.

But that will all have to change now. With everyone having gone through the same experiences in having their freedom of movement curtailed, humanity has, for the first time in a very long time, shared a common experience.

It’s therefore important for leaders to demonstrate that they understand this by showing cognitive and emotional empathy for their employees during these times. Such an approach will more quickly oil the wheels of your team, department, division or company, enabling you to get back up to speed a lot quicker.

While you may have to demonstrate quite a bit of empathy in the days, weeks and months ahead, that won’t always be the case, as employees get their own lives in control again. That doesn’t mean you’ll stop showing empathy at some time in the future. It just means you’ll need to show quite a bit in the short term.

Of course, like anything else – even medication – too much of something is bad, hence the need to find the right balance between showing sufficient empathy while demanding performance. So, when all is said and done, as people need help in regaining their focus, their confidence and their sense of purpose in the workplace, if you’re not an empathetic leader in the days ahead, you’ll probably be remembered as just a pathetic leader.

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine and @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and teaches both experienced business leaders and Millennial managers how to lead with integrity, purpose and agility. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site as one of the "Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter".