How much is enough? Empathy with Skill

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Empathetic leadership has been thrust in the spotlight even more than ever in these extraordinary times of COVID-19.  Empathy, compassion and kindness are being catapulted into the headlines as the ‘must have’ qualities of leadership at a time of crisis. But is empathy all it is cracked up to be?  Isn’t being empathetic merely the ability to be human, to connect and understand others through emotion and feeling?  Is it really that hard to do, between one human and another?

Let’s be honest, at times of extreme uncertainty and turbulence, maybe what we actually need from leaders is for the dial to be turned down on empathy and the volume turned up on progressive action, clear decision-making, and swift manoeuvres that shift us all forward.

Empathy as a force for good

Don’t misunderstand me.  Having empathy as a leader, to be able to create shared experiences, to relate and engage with others on an emotional level, is a significant and very positive asset.  Empathetic leaders are compassionate, are more likely to create rich and fulfilling relationships with others, are inclusive in their leadership behaviours and empower others.  The capacity for empathy has excellent survival value too, especially in times of crisis or stress. It allows you to build allies, foster a strength in relational bonds and succeed in groups where collective energy can be harnessed.

‘What’s not to like?’, I hear you ask.

I am reminded of Why should anyone be led by you, by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in 2006, where the key message of ‘be yourself – more – with skill’ continues to resonate to this day.  Empathy without authenticity or integrity is dangerous.  Empathy without skill is arguably even more so.

The dangers of empathy

Being empathetic as a human being is hard work.  It requires cognitive effort which can lead to overload, emotional connection which can be exhausting, and it is zero-sum in nature. This means empathy doesn’t just drain our energy and cognitive resources, it also depletes itself. Both our desire to be empathic and the effort it requires are in limited supply – it doesn’t come in boundless quantities.  I recall a situation where I learnt this for myself as a leader in a professional services firm a few years ago.

Over the years I have learnt that I am naturally empathetic and empathy comes easily to me.  I can often tell what other people want or need before the other person can articulate it. I am good at sensing. I can sense discomfort, fear, and worry in others, as well as hope and optimism.  This is a real privilege, and it can be a huge strength when it comes to coaching and counselling others.  Having survived a particularly traumatic personal experience where I nearly lost my husband to a congenital heart condition in 2012, for a time afterwards my empathy tap was fully turned on.  I became the go-to Partner for anyone in the department who was experiencing distress in any form, either workplace related or personal life oriented.  I became overwhelmed with the emotional burdens that others were sharing and began to dominate my focus.  Who was looking after me? How could I perform at work when I was so emotionally fatigued? My sense of perspective was being challenged. It took my mother, with her lucid recognition and understanding of the overload that I had invited, to tell me very sternly, but with warmth and kindness, ‘You can’t save everyone, Tracey. It’s time to stop.’  At which point the floodlights came on.

My leadership challenge with empathy was, and still is today, to know how and when to turn it up and down, on and off. Being empathetic without high levels of self-awareness, the ability to contextualise and tailor it accordingly, with little or no calibration can lead to harming yourself as well as others, as well as leading to poor ethical judgement.

Empathy and ethics

There is a huge amount of readily available research that support my own practical experience, as a business ethics advisor and behavioural change consultant, that empathy can erode ethics. It can lead to lapses in ethical judgment and poor decision-making.  Multiple studies in behavioural science and decision-making show that people are more inclined to cheat or bend the rules when it serves another person. Paul Bloom, in his book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion[1], writes ‘…on the whole, it’s [empathy] a poor moral guide. It grounds foolish judgments and often motivates indifference and cruelty. It can lead to irrational and unfair political decisions, it can corrode certain important relationships, such as between a doctor and a patient, and make us worse at being friends, parents, husbands, and wives.’

In this deliberately challenging book, Bloom seeks to provoke and stimulate thinking to mitigate a prevailing culture that places such a high premium on empathy.  Empathy, he suggests, narrows our focus in a self-regarding way and highlights that there is sustained evidence that we empathise more with those that either resemble us or those we find attractive.  This is reinforced by the ‘in and out group’ type of behaviours behind corporate decision-making that we all too often see, manifesting itself in a lack of diversity and a non-inclusive culture, where minority groups are isolated and inclusion is only spoken about, not enacted or felt. 

How much is enough?

As a leader, amongst many other things, we are expected to provide clarity, a sense of direction and shared purpose, and ultimately, make decisions.  But to do this without an underlying sense of humanity, any emotional understanding, or compassion for others makes for a leader in name and label only, without the moral authority that can inspire and empower others, and creates trust and psychological safety. The ability to sense and calibrate how much or how little empathy is required at any point in time is critical.

This is empathy with skill.  And skilful empathy, at a time of crisis, uncertainty and heightened anxiety, is a powerful and compelling capability that will enable those skilled leaders to be outstanding in their ability to navigate the unpredictable COVID-19 world we now find ourselves in.

There is no definitive right or wrong amount of empathy that is required from leaders – that would be far too easy!  The levels of empathy that is needed will fluctuate, and will ebb and flow. What will remain constant, however, is the need for leaders to be courageous, increasingly vigilant and possess a deep understanding and self-awareness of one’s preferences and behaviours. This is not easy, which makes it even more powerful and attractive when it is achieved.  As Jacinda Adern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, said in a 2018 BBC interview on her leadership style, “It takes strength to be an empathetic leader”[2].

One thing that Jacinda didn’t mention about empathetic leadership (she didn’t need to) – the rewards are limitless, when it’s done with skill.