Empathy

The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader

Empathy on its own is not enough
The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader
Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Founder and Managing Director of Potential Project | International Partner and the North American Director for Potential Project
8 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Excerpted from THE MIND OF THE LEADER: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results.

To enhance engagement, many leaders are told they need to be more empathetic. Empathy is the skill of understanding and recognizing others' feelings and perspectives. As a leader, that skill is obviously important. You cannot effectively lead someone you don't understand. You can only motivate and influence a person when you know how they feel. There are good reasons that experts like Daniel Goleman have hailed empathy as a core competency of good leadership. Empathy increases life satisfaction, emotional intelligence and self-esteem. People with high empathy have larger and more fulfilling social networks, are more social themselves, volunteer more readily, donate more to charity and are more likely to help others in need.

Related: 7 Inspiring Traits of Compassionate Leadership

Empathy is an enduring individual characteristic that's relatively stable over time and across a life span. It can be increased through mindfulness training. Not surprisingly, Amazon's search engine returns more than fifteen hundred books with the word "empathy" in the title, with many of them also including the words "leadership" and "management." Research into the neurology of empathy, however, provides a more nuanced picture -- at least from a leadership perspective. Empathy has some pitfalls that every leader should understand.

Empathy can lead to poor decisions.

Empathy can be a poor moral guide. Yes, you read that correctly. Empathy often helps us do what's right, but it also sometimes motivates us to do what's wrong. Research by Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy, discovered that empathy can distort our judgment. In his study, two groups of people listened to the recording of a terminally ill boy describing his pain.

One group was asked to identify with and feel for the boy. The other group was instructed to listen objectively and not engage emotionally. After listening to the recording, each person was asked whether they would move the boy up a prioritized treatment list constructed and managed by medical doctors. In the emotional group, three-quarters of participants decided to move him up the list against the opinion of medical professionals and potentially putting other individuals at risk. In the objective group, only one-third of the participants made the same recommendation.

This study demonstrates how empathy triggers our altruistic impulses, resulting in poor judgment that could harm many people for the benefit of one person. As leaders, empathy may cloud our moral judgment. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions.

Related: 10 Ways Self-Awareness Can Make You a Horrible Boss

Empathy can hamper diversity.

Studies find that humans empathize more easily with people similar to themselves. Even animals that resemble us receive more of our empathy. Just think of a baby seal with it big round eyes, as opposed to a chicken. Which would you more readily kill and eat? They are both living beings with the instincts to avoid danger and death. Yet we discriminate. We're more likely to kill and eat the chicken with its small, cold eyes and feathers. Similarly, we easily empathize with our neighbor whose car is stolen and less easily with the homeless person on the street.

Much in the same way, we unconsciously empathize with colleagues who are similar to us. We tend to offer them better assignments and better positions, all unknowingly. Empathy can also mislead us to hire and promote those like ourselves. It can create an organization that suffers from lack of diverse perspectives limiting problem solving and creativity.

Related: 3 Simple Ways to Increase Empathy at Work

Empathy can be too narrow.

It's hard to truly empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Try it. Take a moment to have true empathy with two people close to you. Right now. Feel their challenges. Feel what they feel. Difficult? Maybe impossible.

The mind -- or heart -- simply can't hold such different emotions at the same time. Empathy for one can be difficult; for two, even more so. As a leader, we often need to consider the different perspectives and concerns of multiple people at the same time. Empathy is simply too constricting to help us effectively navigate multiple perspectives and concerns.

Related: Use These 7 Emotional Intelligence Tips to Be a Better Leader

Empathy can lead to distress.

Taking on the suffering and troubles of others is tough. For a moment, imagine being an emergency room doctor, treating victims of traffic accidents, violence and other horrific injuries. You see people hurt, some even dying. You see the pain of relatives losing loved ones. Hour after hour, day after day.

A well-known reaction to this type of situation is empathetic numbness, simply shutting down our emotional reaction to others. As a result of seeing all this carnage, doctors shut down their emotional life. Too much empathy in some situations can lead to distress. A U.S. study found that 60 percent of medical professionals suffer from or have suffered from burnout. A third of them have been affected to the point of having to take a sabbatical from their jobs.

As leaders, there are many times when members of our team will face tough situations. They may lose a big client. They may not get the promotion they wanted. They may get into a conflict with another member of the team. If we take on the disappointment, anger, frustration or impatience of the people who report to us, we will become exhausted. Empathy in leadership can drain us.

Related: 3 Tips for Raising Your Kids to Be Empathetic Entrepreneurs

Empathy is fleeting.

Empathy can make us passionate and fierce -- for a moment. Studies have found that this energy often dissipates before we can take any meaningful action. Feelings are fickle. Social media offers a great example of this phenomenon. A photo of a young refugee child washed up on a European shore inspires millions of Facebook users to donate millions of dollars on the day the photo appears. But, in the days that follow, something else has captivated our attention, and the refugee crisis is all but forgotten. Few took long-term action.

Empathy is good, but it must be combined with constructive action to have real impact. Empathy without the skill and discipline to stand back, judge objectively and act accordingly is worth little. Supporting an employee who has had a death in his family is important, but it's the discipline to check in, repeatedly over time, that makes the real difference. So, if empathy is not the answer to skillfully lead emotion beings, what is? The answer is MSC leadership: mindfulness (M), selflessness (S) and compassion (C).

Related: 7 Emotional-Management Practices That Propel Success

Managing emotions with MSC leadership

Emotions are just energy in motion, in our body and our mind. There is nothing inherently good or bad, positive or negative about emotions. When we're mindful, we're aware of these emotions -- this energy -- as it plays out during the day. Being aware of these emotions is the first step to managing them.

A natural human reaction to emotions is to either suppress them or act them out. Suppressing our emotions is like trying to hold down the lid on a boiling pot of water. At some point, it will boil over. And in the process, it drains our energy and narrows our perspective. Acting out our emotions, whether aggressively or passive-aggressively, might feel good in the moment, but in the long run, it usually leads to disappointment, regret or shame. Think of emotional suppression and acting out as being on opposite sides of a seesaw. Putting your weight on either end throws everything off balance.

Because emotions are fueled by our reactions to them, the greater our reaction, the more energy our emotions build. The mindful approach to emotions is to cut short the reactions of suppression or acting out by developing the ability to embrace our emotions as they arise. This means looking our emotions in the eye and not reacting to them. Facing our emotions requires courage and mental strength, the courage to endure the discomfort of raw emotion and the strength to stay with this discomfort as long as it lasts.

Emotional resonance and compassion are invaluable for leadership and relating to others, particularly in challenging work situations. Rather than taking on others' emotions and problems, with compassion you can help them diffuse the issues and move on.

Related Video: The Ability to Understand People Is Business at its Core

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3 Simple Ways to Increase Empathy at Work