There’s been a lot of talk about empathy in the workplace for personal development for leadership and what that looks like. Even in my own articles I focus on discussing the kinder, more compassionate leader of tomorrow.
However, there are some common myths about being an empathic leader that are worth debunking now. The challenge with the commonly conceived notion of an empathic leader is that it’s often painted with a brush that is incredibly soft and often doesn’t reflect the kind of leader the workforce actually needs to be successful.
This can cause leaders to question their strongest leadership skills for the sake of empathy. Being an empathic leader isn’t about empathy for empathy’s sake so let’s set the record straight.
Common Myths about empathic leaders:
Empathic leaders are not all well-liked
When we talk about using personal development for leadership we envision a kinder workforce. This can be confused with a movement to create leaders who are liked and respected by everyone, however, the opposite can also be true. Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of others.
In my own leadership style, my empathy has been mistaken for weakness in the past. I’ve learned that it can be jarring for a team member to experience what they perceive as greater kindness and empathy in one experience and firmness and directness when communicating expectations the next.
However, this is an important part of leadership. Empathy can’t compromise our ability to get things done. When these two things come in conflict it’s likely to displease some people along the way, regardless of how empathic we are in our response.
I have also made some big mistakes when using my intuition about how someone is feeling that caused discomfort. I’ve learned to keep my empathic intuition (being able to sense how someone feels) under wraps until I know it’s an open dialogue.
The more specific I am about my intuition, I’ve found the more likely it is to shut someone down rather than open them up, especially if it’s spot on. You can imagine how you’d feel if someone said, “I sense you’re feeling sad.”
Even if you are sad, sometimes it’s not something you are ready or want to discuss. This has created friction for me in the past and required me to step back and take stock of my own purpose in leveraging empathy.
The purpose isn’t to guess how people are feeling. It’s to create a more harmonious work environment and to be a stronger leader for my team.
Empathic leaders don’t always deliver results
Just because a leader has empathy does not mean they know how to deliver on corporate objectives. As companies become more aware of empathy in their hiring practices it will be important to not lose sight of the objective. At the end of the day, it’s about delivering on the mission with empathy.
If the mission isn’t delivered it was all a failure, empathic or not. There is an optimal balance between being empathic and holding people accountable to reaching their objectives.
In a perfect world, we’d be recruiting leaders who know how to inspire their teams to deliver and who also hold all of the soft skills needed to unlock the full potential of their team.
The Pandemic helped to get us closer to that world as we have all had to step back and sit in the shoes of our team members. Heck, we had to sit in our own shoes through it all.
As a result, many leaders have emerged with even stronger skills in empathy, regardless of whether or not they delivered on their objectives.
Empathic leaders are not always nice
Empathy doesn’t have anything to do with being nice. I can understand and share your feelings without being nice in return. It’s a pretty big assumption to believe that because I understand your feelings I will be kind in my response to them.
It’s just as likely that you understanding my feelings will trigger your own emotional response that can be either negative or positive. I’d argue that empathic leaders are even more triggerable in the early stages of developing the skill.
Understanding someone’s feelings and being able to process them in a positive way are two very different skills. You’ve probably already noticed this in the workplace.
Have you ever had an experience when someone was complaining about a coworker to a group and everyone dove in and created a complaint vortex? Those people who dove in were experiencing empathy, but their response was incredibly unkind to the team member who wasn’t in the room.
Empathic leaders gossip
You know where I find the most empathy in the workplace? In those complaint vortexes, not in the boardroom. When we’re struggling we all want to feel seen and supported.
Having a group of colleagues to vent to can be incredibly satisfying, which is why it’s so common to have two types of dialogue in the office: “under the table” dialogue and out in the “open” dialogue.
There’s a lot of emotion wrapped around the unspoken. One common misperception about personal development for leadership is that empathic leaders aren’t at the center of the gossip chain when in fact, they may have more gossip than anyone in the organization because people naturally gravitate to them when they have problems.
The drama triangle is often populated by the most empathic people in the organization. It’s incredibly easy to get lost in trying to save everyone once you understand how everyone feels.
This trap can lead to some of even the strongest empathic leaders getting caught up in a gossip train as they align themselves with the underdogs.
Empathic leaders can be toxic
I’d think all of the prior examples demonstrate that it’s possible to have empathy and not understand how to leverage it in a positive way in the workplace. Having empathy and knowing how to create impact with it are two different things.
I discovered that the early stages of developing empathy were also wrought with my own unhealthy patterns of engaging with emotions and pleasing people.
There is a difference between being aware of emotions and how we subconsciously take action on those emotions, as we’ve discussed.
I’ve found the hero, villain and victim stories to be especially pervasive amongst empaths. Because they understand everyone’s emotions they naturally align with the underdog and fight to overcome the villain. This patterned story is a recipe for a toxic and unsafe work environment and should be on everyone’s radar.
These 5 myths about empathic leadership can create confusion as you hire leaders who lead with empathy. What starts out as a boon of compassion can easily turn into an unhealthy drama in the workplace when the skill of empathy hasn’t been fully developed.
Empathy has become the latest buzzword for leadership, but it’s also one we are all still learning how to understand and deploy at scale. As we learn more about becoming even more empathic and effective leaders using personal development for leadership I hope we will share the good, the bad and the ugly.
The road to an empathic workplace will require an organizational change management strategy and a deep understanding of what being an empathic leader really means for your organization to be successful.
Further, it requires a deep understanding of empathy and how it aligns with the overall mission of the organization. Empathy for empathy’s sake isn’t helpful.
Empathy designed for personal development for leadership is becoming a necessary skill in the workplace and is one you can learn with a little practice.