The leadership-empathy conundrum.

There is a lot of talk right now about empathy being a leadership essential. Especially in the light of the pandemic, the expectation from leaders to relate to and care for their people is more than ever before.

But here’s the thing: unlike what a lot of articles online seem to be saying, empathy isn’t a tool that leaders can add to their arsenal overnight. It isn’t a set of tactical activities to be included in the leader’s to-do list.

For a quality that has been checked at the door of the workplace for decades together, it will be a lot of work to welcome empathy back, into the lives of leaders and corporate cultures.

The good news is that Jamil Zaki, the author of the acclaimed book, War for Kindness, asserts that empathy is a skill that can be learned. Yet, at the same time, we can’t disregard the fact that it is not going to be easy work. Practicing empathic leadership will require leaders to do a lot of inward-facing work along with challenging the status quo.

But even before they can begin though, leaders need to have steadfast conviction in the value that empathy can deliver for them. And for this very reason, it is necessary to challenge some long-held beliefs that stand in the way of empathy marrying leadership.

A feel-good emotion that’s not for leaders?

Our culture’s deep-rooted dichotomous masculine-feminine stance percolates to our understanding of leadership. Seen as a more masculine role, leadership has long been believed to be non-emotional, aggressive and self-interest driven. Naturally, a trait like empathy with a feminine undertone is perceived to be a misfit in the leadership arena.

Look at the many stories, folklores, and movies we have been exposed to as youngsters.

Sun Tzu who wrote one of the earliest books on leadership, the Art of War, equated leadership to war, fear, and deception.

‘The Prince’, a book by Niccolo Machiavelli reflected the societal belief that morality has no place in the leadership arena.

The 1987 movie, the Wallstreet portrays Gordon Gekko as a leader who succeeds by focusing on himself while establishing that sacrificing for others is bad for business.

Even at business schools, we have been exposed to such tough competition that posits self-interest as the means to growth and success and empathy as a mushy emotion that can hinder our progress.

To begin practicing empathy at workplaces, we need to first focus on changing the narrative and the way we look at leadership. Thankfully, the Centre for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) annual survey observes that the nature of leadership is seeing a significant shift with a growing focus on building and maintaining relationships than ever before. For instance, the most recent CCL survey shows a positive correlation between empathy and leadership performance, which means leaders who demonstrate empathy towards the team are viewed as better performers at their job by their bosses. Studies also reveal that an empathic individual not only excels professionally but also experiences greater subjective well-being.

Empathy is fundamentally at odds with success?

Seeping from the masculine narrative of leadership is also the belief that a soft-skill like empathy can greatly hinder success in the professional space. But numerous researches are now starting to tell a different story.

In 2012, Google ran Project Aristotle which was aimed at understanding what makes collaborative teams succeed. Surprisingly, what came up as the most popular response was the psychological safety team members experienced as a result of their interpersonal sensitivity.

Study after study has also revealed that empathic leaders have more productive and loyal employees who are ready to work for longer hours if necessary.

Lastly and most importantly, researchers are also finding a direct relationship between organizational empathy and bottom-line success.

The popularity of the works of Daniel Goleman, Marc Brackett, Brene Brown on empathy and leadership is a positive sign of the openness our culture and workplaces are exhibiting towards more compassionate leadership.

Help others put on their mask before your own?

There is a general misconception about empathic leadership promoting self-sacrifice. Empathy doesn’t ask anyone to set themselves on fire to give light to others.

Just like the airline safety procedure says, empathy researchers emphasize putting on one’s mask first before helping others.

Empathic leadership isn’t about assuming a therapist’s role or getting entangled in the emotions and frustrations of employees. Empathic leaders aren’t going to wave a magical wand and rescue everyone from their struggles. It definitely doesn’t also mean that they have to keep everyone happy at all times.

In a more nuanced way, empathic leadership is:

–     Being open to the discomfort of understanding other’s emotions and have the desire to work towards everyone’s wellbeing.

–     Being more authentic and real that will, in turn, inspire their team members to embrace authenticity.

–      Being able to act and speak in a way that communicates to employees that they are seen and heard.

–      Being transparent and honest in actions and communication.

This definitely does not mean that empathic leaders will always be the bearers of all things good. For instance, when delivering bad news, leaders with empathy will stay with the distress and guilt they are feeling to avoid alienating their people. The moment a leader turns off their emotions to avoid experiencing the discomfort of a situation, they instantly disconnect with their employees leading to distrust, dissatisfaction and other negative emotions. A study reports that people are grateful to leaders who lay them off with procedural justice and help them with finding new opportunities. On similar lines, people who feel they were laid off without compassion are more likely to file wrongful termination claims.

The leadership-empathy conundrum.

A peek into the workplace shows that there are two other things that also come in the way of empathic leadership.

1.  The leadership bubble:

Given their tight schedules and professional commitments, leaders often tend to live in a bubble that separates them from the larger group of employees. Their interaction is often limited to a few people who help them run the show. In this process, sometimes consciously and most of the time subconsciously, a culture of us vs. them is born within the organization that leads to a divide between leadership and employees. 

2.  The power struggle:

Studies reveal an interesting paradox in management. People who demonstrate empathy tend to be selected by their peers as natural leaders. However, as they gain power, people often tend to shed their empathy. They become less focused on their surroundings in a way that helps them make difficult decisions and not be swayed by what others are feeling. This lack of perspective-taking greatly diminishes a leader’s ability to empathize.

In conclusion…

For leaders, there are a number of suggested ways to exercise and build their empathy muscle. Check out Brene Brown’s work or Jamil Zaki’s kindness challenges. But before leaders can even get there, we must actively challenge the outdated beliefs and myths that shroud our understanding of leadership. A change in the narrative, that’s where it all needs to begin.