Empathy at Work
Empathy is a good trait to have. It allows us to understand the feelings of others, to predict the responses others might have to situations, and to engage with people on an emotional level. In management and leadership positions, it’s a very valuable trait, as staff respond positively to the feeling that they are understood and cared about. It makes the workplace feel as though it is a secure and comfortable environment when empathetic people are in charge.
We feel good when people understand us, when they “get us”, when they understand enough about us to provide the environment and the work that best suits us. We feel like we can achieve anything when we are appreciated and understood.
I have worked with people in coaching situations and in Leadership Development Programs who have very low empathy. While these people are good leaders and managers, it does take more focus, planning, openness and discipline than their empathetic counterparts.
If empathy is such a valuable trait, can there be too much empathy? When does empathy turn into your enemy rather than your ally?
Can Empathy be your Enemy?
When empathy is overused, its power is lost.
I know that I have made some poor judgements when my concern about the potential to hurt someone else, or not appearing to understand their situation, was greater than my attention to the goal, or the deadlines or the required outcomes. In my desire to understand and be helpful, I either put additional but unnecessary burdens onto myself and others in the team, or unnecessarily delayed deadlines.
I think there are two ways in which empathy can be overused:
- When it overrides our ability to balance the needs of the other person with the needs of the business, or even our own needs;
- When we avoid difficult conversations with a staff member in fear of hurting them or appearing unkind. For example, a conversation about performance and results is delayed because a staff member’s elderly parent is not well.
We don’t do anyone any favours if, in our effort to be helpful to our staff or even our peers, we silently “rescue” them in this way, often at our own expense. It can lead to situations that involve misunderstandings, emotions and feelings of exploitation.
Too Little Empathy
When empathy is underused, its power is lost.
Empathy can also be an enemy if it is not used — ie when empathy is not shown to people. As a coach and consultant, I’ve had clients who have an understanding of others but haven’t revealed it except in rare circumstances. Often the goal, the outcome, the deadline is their driving force, and those empathetic feelings are not valued, are repressed and are not considered in the drive for results. Unfortunately, the outcome of underused empathy can be disengaged staff who feel unappreciated and that their contribution is undervalued.
Be a Powerful Leader: Balance Empathy and Helpfulness with Business Assertiveness
Of course it is vital to have empathy in the workplace. We spend the best part of our lives in the workplace, and we want to feel valued and liked for ourselves and for the job that we do.
Business assertiveness is also important – the ability to focus on outcomes and results, to empower people and to hold them accountable for outcomes, and ultimately to achieve those results because of the attention given to the goal.
Although these two traits may seem paradoxical, in fact they are synergistic. Those who can master both traits achieve exceptional performance in this area through the blending of empathy and our resulting helpfulness with business assertiveness. In balance, these traits provide managers and leaders with the ability to blend both traits and bring the right mix of them to every situation.
The Manifestation of Balance is through Communication
The expression of warmth and empathy for others in the workplace is through communication – through listening, through silence and consideration, and through the words that we speak.
The expression of Business Assertiveness is also through communication, in the same way.
At Indra, we coach people who want the right balance, working with them to balance and blend these traits — being warm, empathetic and helpful, and making allowances for people where necessary, while being clear about work and performance expectations and timelines, then to strategise, plan and replan work, and motivate and engage their teams in the support of their team mates.
All of these conversations are critical conversations – those where the outcomes are important for the person and the business. They are also critical in the sense that great conversations will create positive and great results. It goes without saying that unplanned, unmanaged and unbalanced conversations can potentially cause difficult situations.