Four Things Empathy is Not

Empathy is a powerful emotion that can generate deeper understanding, and it is also an essential skill in every single leadership conversation. The productive dialogue that flows from an empathetic viewpoint  offers alternative perspectives, increases productivity and generates buy-in across the board. 

However, a misperception about empathy can cause leaders to hold back from utilizing this essential skill in conversations that matter. Maybe they have seen empathy misapplied with leaders who subsequently avoid making the tough call or change their decisions based on emotional reactions alone. If you have experienced that, you might label empathy as too soft and miss out on the benefits of this essential conversational leadership skill. 

Imagine a scenario where the organization needs to grow. But, those who are currently on the team really like the way things are going and what they are doing. Leaders in that situation come to me and ask, “Do I design the job roles around the person or around what the organization needs?” My answer, “Yes, both!” I usually get a groan and an eye-roll to that response. 

Leaders have to do the hard work of balancing empathy for where people are at with what the organization needs. Sometimes that means pushing the team to do the hard thing; other times that means adapting the hard core decisions to take into consideration the team that you have and their experiences, insights and capabilities. 

Empathy means both understanding others on their own terms and bringing them within the orbit of one’s own experience.

~Jacob A. Belzen

You might wonder if you can engage empathy and not water down your leadership. So, let’s clarify what empathetic leaders should consider:

Don’t automatically take on their emotions as your own. 

This can skew your decision making ability and it is also an unnecessary and unhelpful burden to carry. Instead distinguish their emotion from your emotion. This essential differentiation keeps the empathetic leader from getting bogged down in emotions when trying to move forward.

Don’t respond to intensity. 

Other peoples’ feelings can cripple your ability to make decisions as you attempt to moderate their intensity. Instead integrate empathy with awareness of self, others and the mission of the organization. A leader’s job is to hold all three elements together and see the big picture.

Don’t ignore your bias in empathy. 

We do tend to be empathetic with people who we like or are similar to us. Instead, notice any internal resistance to engaging empathy. Ask yourself: What bias might be creating that barrier? Then, look for common ground. 

Don’t let empathy alone drive decisions. 

Empathy is intended to see the perspective of another as a factor in decision making but not a driver of it. Instead, use empathy for the tool that it is. Step into their shoes. Use that understanding to facilitate dialogue around the implications of the decision. You will make better decisions, even if you still have to make the unpopular one.

What’s Next

  1. Reflect on the empathy statements above. Where might you inadvertently be letting empathy steer you off track? How might it be influencing the decisions you need to make?
  2. Choose one way to use empathy more intentionally. Check out last week’s blog about how empathy can be used to take the heat out of difficult conversations or check out the Side by Side Podcast episode “Before You Say A Word” for a few more ideas. 
  3. Practice an empathetic strategy. Try that one way to use empathy in a variety of situations. Reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Tweak your approach and try again.
  4. Comment below. What are ways that using empathy works for you (without diffusing your leadership)?

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Annie Perdue Olson

Annie is founder of Leading Better Together, guiding leaders through the relationship and people challenges that sidetrack ministry. With 20+ years of experience in nonprofit management and pastoral ministry she equips people and teams to work better together. She holds a Master of Arts in Human Resources and Change Leadership from St. Thomas University and received her coaching certification from the Center for Coaching Excellence.

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