The Challenges of Empathetic Leadership & How to Overcome Them 0

The-Challenges-of-Empathetic-Leadership-&-How-to-Overcome-Them

Today, empathy in leadership has become crucial to engage employees, motivate them, and maintain a positive work culture in the modern workplace.

But empathy is not something every leader has, is compelled to have, or is a magic potion to be effective at the helm. Instead, it is just one of the many tools that can be used to create strong connections with employees- because when leaders hear their people, trust increases and trust is something that every organisation desires.

In research by the Management Research Group, empathy was found to be the top competence for good leadership and one of the three strongest predictors of senior executive effectiveness.

Our last article discussed the importance of empathy and empathetic leadership in the modern workplace. However, like everything else, too much empathy can also be problematic. There are pros and cons to being a compassionate leader, and no discussion is complete without understanding the whole picture.

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Pitfalls of Empathy That Every Leader Needs to Bear in Mind

1. Being perceived as weak

People generally misconstrue empathetic people as overly kind, caring, sensitive and sometimes even emotional- traits that are often thought to be those of weak people. Hence, in the workplace, this frequently gives the impression that compassionate leaders are of the same ilk.

As you can imagine, in highly cut-throat professional environments, this may not be ideal, as every leader would like to be perceived as strong, respected and charismatic.

Solution

But the truth is that being an empathetic leader does not mean being weak, getting trampled on, or being a pushover.

Strength and empathy can go hand in hand. This means leaders must learn to balance empathy with other facets of leadership such as purpose, vision, strength and assertiveness.

Nevertheless, the tricky part is knowing how to consider another person’s perspective while still maintaining their own, learning when to stand firm, and when to make concessions. Unfortunately, this is not an easy skill to hone and takes a lot of work, but it is well worth it as these are precisely the traits that make leaders more loved, respected, and influential.

Leaders must learn to balance empathy with other facets of leadership such as purpose, vision, strength and assertiveness. Click To Tweet

2. Not knowing where to draw the line

It takes a lot of effort to step into someone’s shoes and then react with empathy. But, on the other hand, it is also easy to get carried away by another’s pain.

Although leaders need to understand what their employees are going through, getting trapped in other people’s problems and struggles is not their job. So, not knowing where to draw the line also poses a bigger problem – being consumed by people’s problems, leading to anxiety and low-level depression. This is not a desirable outcome for anyone.

Hence, not defining limits will only compromise leaders and make them less effective.

Solution

Again, this problem arises when leaders do not have a balanced understanding of empathy.

It is critical to learn how to ‘feel’ with employees without being disturbed by their problems. Remember, this does not mean being detached or aloof. It just means being involved to a reasonable extent and not getting completely immersed in their problems.

Not going overboard with empathy requires leaders to establish proper boundaries between themselves and others so that they can distinguish between their own feelings and those of others. Also, being constantly aware that the emotions are not their own and a mirror of someone else’s feelings can help tremendously to keep firm boundaries.

3. Hampering diversity

Empathy has many benefits; however, sometimes, it can manifest itself negatively. Human beings typically tend to see the world as “we” and “they”- they see camaraderie with people who are most familiar to them. Unfortunately, this bias is one of the products of an empathic response.

Also Read:  Using the employee lifecycle as your roadmap to employee engagement

In the workplace, these biases can influence who leaders readily empathise with, who they like, care for, associate with, who they will punish, and so on. They instinctively also tend to favour people they identify with, with better assignments and positions.

Simply put, this can cause leaders to value those who look, sound, and act more like themselves resulting in organisations that suffer from a lack of diverse perspectives, limited problem-solving, innovation, and creativity.

This tendency towards bias can also antagonise people who do not belong to the group that is getting preferential treatment, which, in turn, could lead to conflict within the organisation.

Empathy has many benefits; however, sometimes, it can manifest itself negatively. Human beings typically tend to see the world as “we” and “they”- they see camaraderie with people who are most familiar to them. Unfortunately, this bias is one of the products of an empathic response.

Solution

The truth is, empathetic or not- everyone has biases- but it is difficult for people to admit that they do.

For leaders especially, unconscious biases that stem from empathic responses can have a crippling effect on all that they do, from hiring to employee retention to innovation. Having biases also means that fairness is often compromised.

Hence, for organisations to thrive, it is crucial for leaders to tackle their own biases first. Their organisations can only flourish if they gain an acute understanding of where their biases lie, understand how these biases can hold back their organisation and try to alleviate them.

Introspecting and being constantly aware can help deal with biases effectively.

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4. Empathy can be stressful

As we have already established, it is possible to take empathy too far. Empathising beyond a reasonable point or exercising the wrong type of empathy can negatively affect a person’s wellbeing, as empathy can take a toll on mental resources. Hence, roles that require constant empathy can lead to “compassion fatigue”. It results from wanting to help or helping others who are traumatised or under significant emotional duress.

It is good for leaders to understand how their people feel. However, by directly experiencing everyone’s problems and emotions – without being able to control them – they can be exposed to pain, panic, stress, fear, anxiety, confusion and a host of other not so desirable emotions.

Solution

Every leader needs to understand when it is essential to move beyond empathy into compassion and then be able to define a way forward. Being unable to do so will most likely lead to burnout.

Hence, finding a way to manage and regulate the amount of empathy they feel for their employees can be a way to ensure a way not to be overburdened or burnt out. Regulating feelings and controlling emotions allows the empathiser to keep a clear mind, helps maintain a balance, and not get overwhelmed with emotion.

When leaders exercise a combination of empathy, sympathy, and compassion, they can consistently and powerfully engage their team in a human fashion.

5. Can make people less accountable 

Empath leaders are not immune to deception, narcissism, and toxic people. Because of their kind nature, people are always trying to take advantage of their empathy, compassion, and willingness to help. There is always a bunch of employees who cannot appreciate kindness or, worse still, try and take advantage of it. So, they cross boundaries, manipulate, constantly take, and never reciprocate.

Hence, what starts out as empathy on the part of the leader soon devolves into a one-sided, manipulative relationship controlled by the employee.

Also, because empathetic leaders frequently cut employees slack, the latter often thinks they can get away with not being accountable. As the toxicity persists, employees will be totally unaccountable for their work but continue to expect understanding and kindness in return.

Solution

Empathetic leaders need to understand when to stand firm. If someone is continually taking advantage and never reciprocating, it is time to pause their approach and take stock of what is going on and look into the boundaries and rights that have been violated.

Also Read:  HR Leaders: The Enablers of Employee Growth and Engagement

Further, although it helps those at the helm to understand that humaneness is required in an organisation, every employee has a role to play- they are accountable for the work they do and their behaviour within the organisation.

It is possible for leaders to be kind yet set boundaries and insist on accountability.

Empathetic leaders need to understand when to stand firm. If someone is continually taking advantage and never reciprocating, it is time to pause their approach and take stock of what is going on and look into the boundaries and rights that have been violated.

6. Making poor decisions

Empathy can help us do what is right, but conversely, it can also be a poor moral guide and sometimes motivate people to do what is wrong.

Interestingly, many studies show that people are more inclined to cheat when it benefits another person- especially a person they feel sorry for.

When leaders are immersed, beyond reason, in another person’s problems, it can distort their judgment and trigger philanthropic impulses, resulting in poor decisions that could harm many people for the benefit of one person.

Hence, empathy can quickly cloud moral judgment as it encourages a person to operate from biases and emotions, making it difficult to make wise or logical decisions. It also impacts the ability to take hard calls when needed.

Solution

Leaders need to understand that being empathetic is not a magic formula to being effective. They also need to realise that being empathetic also does not mean that poor moral decisions are justified.

Especially at the helm, decisions always have to be made using a moral compass and keeping the greater good of the organisations and all the employees in mind.

Leaders have to keep asking themselves if their decisions are driven by emotions or reason. This, therefore, takes a balance of awareness, generosity, and compassion.

To Sum Up

Empathy is a positive skill that helps leaders lead with humanity. But who said empathy was easy?  Although emotional resonance, compassion and relating to employees are invaluable for leadership, these can be particularly challenging in the context of a work situation.

However, when leaders hone their empathic skills and learn how to use them appropriately, it can contribute to organisational success.

But boundaries are always required. So leaders need to know what these boundaries are and ensure that they do not push them. This will guarantee success in keeping their employees engaged as well as their peace of mind. And this, in a nutshell, is what comprises being an effective leader.

Therefore, it becomes crucial to understand how empathy works and the upsides and downsides of empathy. This will also ensure the correct balance in providing what employees need when they need it.

Conflict, disappointments, challenging work situations, etc., will always be a big part of the workplace, and leaders will always have to deal with people going through these. However, they cannot take on the burden of disappointment, anger, frustration or impatience of the people under them. This is a sure-fire way to burnout.

Empathy requires leaders to listen, understand, and then stand back, objectively judge the situation, and take logical action. Only then does empathy become constructive.

And now, it’s your turn! If you are a leader who is struggling to strike a balance between empathy and effectiveness, tell us about your struggle and what you have done about it! Go ahead, leave us a comment or get in touch with us- we would love to hear from you!

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