Empathy in leadership is getting a lot of attention, particularly during these challenging times. The consensus is that empathy is essential, ‘the future of leadership’.

Here are a few of the Google search results you’ll see if you search for empathy in leadership:

Empathy in leadership

But wait a second. Here’s the dictionary definition of empathy:

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.

Initially that might sound like the right way to go, but sharing someone else’s feelings is NOT the best option for you, as a leader.

Empathy in leadership: 3 big drawbacks

In this video (8.24mins), Paul Bloom, Professor of Psychology at Yale University, argues against empathy and for understanding and compassion.

As he says, that might sound like “being against kittens, or against world peace”, but with a little reflection it makes a lot of sense.

The essence of his argument is that putting yourself in a person’s shoes, and feeling what they feel, has 3 distinct disadvantages.

  1. Empathy tends to be biased: we feel more empathy for people who look like us, who we find attractive and who are closer to us, rather than far.
  2. Empathy is innumerate: “We feel empathy for the one, but not for the hundred”. This can lead to decision-making that is skewed towards individual solutions that don’t address the needs of the many, leading to a lack of fairness in the workplace.
  3. Empathy can be weaponized: our empathy for those who are suffering can be used to “catalyze anger and hatred”. This is more likely to be a societal (rather than workplace) issue, but still has potential to do harm at work.

A better option is compassion, where “I care about you, I care about your welfare, but I don’t necessarily feel your suffering”.

More here from Vox on Paul Bloom’s case against empathy.

Empathetic leadership vs Compassionate leadership

Empathy is an emotion (sharing the suffering), compassion is an intention (to relieve the suffering).

As Bloom points out, it’s not about the words, you can use any words you like. What matters is being clear about how to lead.

Think of a stage 4 cancer patient, they are in emotional turmoil as they face the prospect of their own death. Does that cancer patient really want a doctor who is in similar emotional turmoil? Of course, they do not. They want a doctor who cares, remains calm and helps them! Same thing with your team members. If someone comes to you with a painful decision to make, you don’t have to feel their pain to be of help. In fact, feeling their pain definitely won’t help. Recognizing their pain, with a clear head, combined with a strong desire to help, is going to be much more productive.

Imagine you have to make several people in your team redundant: is it going to help for you to feel their pain? No! Crying with them might seem like the ‘empathetic’ thing to do, but it would be emotionally draining and exhausting. Sitting quietly with each of them and letting them cry, being with them when they have recovered and being clear headed enough to guide them through the next steps, that’s compassion.

Or perhaps someone comes to you, all riled up and angry because they didn’t get a promotion. Will it help you be a better leader if you feel their anger? No! Once again, you need to feel compassion: understanding their emotions and having a strong desire to help. You’ll help by giving them the space to ‘emote’ while remaining calm and balanced, and then gently talking to them and helping them regain perspective.

The case for rational compassion

Compassionately caring for your people, without putting yourself in their shoes, is the best option for today’s leaders.

We’re better off without empathy. Paul Bloom

This theme is picked up in ‘The Mind of the Leader’, by Rasmus Hougaard. The focus is on compassion for yourself and compassion for others. The key question to ask yourself is: how can I be of benefit to this person?

In his book, Rasmus also highlights the dangers of empathetic leadership. You’ll see similar lines of thinking to Paul Bloom’s case against empathy:

  • Empathy can lead to poor decisions
  • Empathy can hamper diversity
  • Empathy can be too narrow
  • Empathy can lead to distress
  • Empathy is fleeting

Empathy in leadership – putting yourself in others’ shoes and sharing the suffering – leads to distress, burn-out, fleeting actions, narrow mindedness and poor ethical decisions. Empathy is bad for both you and your team.

Compassion in leadership – being motivated to relieve suffering – is empowering, will give you a clear sense of control and leads to sustainable action that will benefit your team.

You can find more in our servant leadership examples in business.

Empathy in Leadership: In summary

Empathy in leadership is massively and dangerously over-rated. This is partly because putting yourself in others’ shoes does seem like a great way to connect and lead (and partly because people misuse the word empathy!). But it’s not about the words, it’s about being clear about how to lead.

Compassionate leadership, based in a strong desire to help (but without putting yourself in others’ shoes), is the way to go. This approach will empower you, give you control to act, help you make better decisions and will benefit your whole team and your business.

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