The Challenges of Empathetic Leadership

In this article, we will take a look at the challenges that come with implementing empathy, the opportunity costs of not doing so and what a world with empathy could look like.

 

Let’s start with the basics: What is empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to understand, feel and relate to another person’s cognitive process or emotional state. In that sense, empathy serves two purposes: a way to extract information about another person and a means to demonstrate that you understand and or care about where they are coming from.

 

But empathy doesn’t tell you what to do with that information. Knowing that somebody is mad because they worked hard and didn’t receive a promotion isn’t a solution to the problem. You can empathize with their position, but you aren’t able to conjure up another opportunity for them – even if you can see the merit in their arguments or feelings. This means empathy is not a magic bullet for leadership, it’s simply one tool of many that a leader must utilize.

 

Depending on how it is executed and the person you are dealing with, empathy can come across as manipulation – especially so if you don’t have a track record of being empathetic. As many individuals in the workplace may not be used to having a leader who genuinely cares about their perspective, it is easy for some to become pessimistic about genuine attempts from leadership.

 

There is also the chance of you failing to understand what empathy is and how it should be used. As we discussed previously, many people associate empathy with being overly caring, sensitive and even emotional. In the beginning, you will likely run into a situation where you are being overly empathetic. This comes with its own risks as people may interpret this as a weakness – especially in more cutthroat business environments.

 

In this sense, empathy needs to be balanced with other aspects of leadership such as vision, purpose, strength and assertiveness. You need to understand other people’s perspective, but you still need to maintain a strong sense of your own. Fine tuning this balance will likely be one of your key challenges.

 

In other occupations where empathy is necessary there has been a known problem of what is called compassion fatigue. In the case of occupations such as doctors, vets and psychologists, there has been an observed effect of these professionals becoming desensitized to the plight of the people or animals that they are working with. They have become numb in response to the emotional toil of the suffering of others. This of course is logical – it is simply not sustainable to be in a constant state of emotional stress.

 

Your challenge as a business leader is slightly different. You won’t suffer from compassion fatigue, but you have to find a way to maintain both cognitive and emotional empathy for your people. It is helpful to understand how your people think, but if you want to create the deep connections that garner loyalty and your people’s best work, you need to empathize with them emotionally as well. The challenge here will again be to maintain your own emotional state and not be swept away by competing causes. What do you do when you can truly see the merits in both sides of an argument?

 

Challenges of implementation

Competing changes

There are other cultural changes that are becoming necessary for organizations: purpose, continuous learning, ethics and so forth. Your first major problem will be deciding which of these changes will be the most impactful for your situation. You will also need to think about which ones will be most practical to implement in the short term.  

 

Of the changes you need to make, empathetic leadership is likely the one that can be implemented the soonest. It is more about you practicing the small things like attentive listening, asking questions and making a more conscious effort to learn about your people than radical changes.

 

Accountability

If you decide to make empathy a priority, you will need to ensure that you are acting out on this change on a daily basis. In the mix of leading, operations and personal issues, it is easy to forget that you are implementing new changes – especially if it is a personal one that you have to consciously act on.

 

To solve this, you need to ensure that you have the right accountability infrastructure in place – from other leaders, your team and yourself. This can be achieved by setting bi-weekly or so training sessions where your whole team learns more about practicing empathy to keep it top of everybody’s mind. You can also utilize employee engagement software and ask your team to score you on different characteristics including empathy.

 

Not quantifiable

The effect of empathy like other cultural changes can be harder to quantify in terms of ROI. You will certainly be able to see and feel the effects directly, but there is no way to measure how these changes are affecting the bottom line. This can present a problem in the situation where you are trying to convince other leaders about the benefits. You aren’t able to make a hard business case for the ROI – although there is a lot of data out there which attempts to quantify such.

 

Aside from the direct results, it will also be difficult to measure how widespread empathy is permeating across your organization. Empathetic leadership starts with you, but it needs to eventually become part of the culture and even extend out to your customers. Other than surveys, you may find it hard to track.

 

Resistance

Resistance to this change will likely start internally. Depending on how you have historically lead, it may be a big jump in practicing empathetic leadership. The nature of leadership in business has traditionally been very cold and logical so it can feel counterintuitive to start practicing empathy. You may run up against limiting beliefs. You may doubt that this style of leadership isn’t for you or even feel uncomfortable executing it. It is situations like these where it is useful to find people are already adept in this style and try to become like them.

 

You may also find a lack of consensus among the other leaders in your organization. The same issues that you will face internally will have to be faced among other leaders. But not all of them may be convinced of the need for this change, suffer from common misconceptions, or feel uncomfortable undergoing this change.

 

Opportunity costs

Despite the challenges, empathetic leadership presents there are significant opportunity costs for not taking the action to implement this change.

 

Talent

People evaluate companies in the same way that companies evaluate people. Future hires will judge your company on a set of criteria including pay, culture, purpose and product. With the vastness of competing firms, both in your industry and out, there are certainly to be companies competing for the same talent who beat you on one or a number of these criteria. Not only that, but they are actively poaching the best people from other companies – retention is a huge problem for companies.

 

Imagine your company before empathy, being compared to a company whose leaders have fully internalized this change. With websites such as Glassdoor that allow current and former employees to post reviews of the company, it is no longer possible to hide your culture with great branding – people will find out. Without an authentic reputation of being a place that truly cares about their employees, you will slowly find yourself struggling to find the right people.

 

Less customer innovation

Without a company leadership culture that promotes empathy, you will be less in tune with what your customers want – both in terms of service and product innovation. As product life cycles decrease, we are now past the era of companies being able to survive off of one product line. In order to survive and meet the increasing challenges of growth; corporate innovation, catalyzed by customer empathy, is an imperative of your organization.

 

Less cohesive workforce

With approaches such as agile and flat hierarchies, the importance in the structure, flexibility and bonds of your workforce is increasingly being seen as a competitive advantage in itself. Empathy throughout the organization represents a means to strengthen the bond between individuals, allowing your team to work more effectively together. When empathy is absent, you increase the likelihood of conflict, distrust, and miscommunication – all problems which destroy cohesion, eroding another competitive advantage.

 

The future

It’s almost as if history is doing a full circle. Before we became civilized and technologically advanced, the focus was placed more on the human aspect of life such as relationships, happiness and our search for meaning. Somewhere along the way, particularly through the industrial revolution to the modern day, we began to focus much more on the material and mechanical aspects of our life.

 

Now, we will likely enter an era that will see an equilibrium between the two – but first we need to rekindle those aspects of our humanity which we lost touch with. It will no longer be just about how technology and business can improve our lives, but also about how we guide these tools to shape and appeal to real human needs. Business, alongside politics and the arts, is one of the key drivers of change in the world – any significant changes to culture should start from there. It is up to us as leaders than to start laying the building blocks of a more empathetic society.

About the author

Drs. Loes Fokker

Drs. Loes Fokker is Chief Culture Officer of the Argo Venture Studio. She evolves the consciousness of leaders and facilitates team-based growth that empowers groups to become high performance teams. 

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