The Criticality of Empathy - Make it work for you!

people management Oct 06, 2023
Cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy

Let’s consider the empathy issue more deeply than the previous brief mentions.

We have seen how EQ (read here the article on EQ/ Emotional intelligence) is critical to a leader’s tools. Empathy is an integral element of EQ.

Empathy is the characteristic of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, being receptive to the feelings, emotions, thoughts, and experience of another person.

The empath has the ability to “read” these attributes in another person from an understanding of that person’s context, behaviours, stresses, and comments, but without that person specifically stating them.

This ability gives those with empathy the ability to not only understand how a person feels, but because of that understanding, experience another person’s point of view. A useful metaphor is the empath’s ability “to walk in another’s shoes".

A leader with empathy is able to convey the message that the leader understands their feelings, their sensitivities, and has a better appreciation of their desires. It provides the leader with invaluable insight, while for the other person, it validates that they “have been heard by someone who matters.”

From a leader’s perspective, empathy becomes a critical and an essential asset.

This is because leaders without empathy, are leaders whose only asset is their own understanding and judgement.

This becomes a key differentiator of success or failure, particularly when leaders deal with issues, policies, strategies, or challenges that have an impact on people. In the area of employees, stakeholders, shareholders, customers, the public, and other people-centric areas, an inability to understand the needs, desires, and fears of these categories of people will determine the likely success or failure of an initiative.

Some argue that empathy will contribute to success, but the lack of it will guarantee its failure.

According to Daniel Goleman[1], there are three kinds of empathy:

1. Cognitive Empathy - “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking”[2]

  • Focus: Knowing, intellect, thought and understanding. For example, a leader understanding terror in another is not the same as the leader being terrified.
  • Positives: Assists negotiations, motivating others, understanding different views. For example, getting inside the other person’s head is important in negotiation as the understanding helps with tact and diplomacy.
  • Negatives: Can ignore deep emotions, fails to put the person “in the other’s shoes”.

2. Emotional Empathy - “when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.”[3]

  • Focus: Physical sensation, feelings, duplicates sensations in the brain. Taking on the emotional and mental state of another.
  • Positives: Builds strong relationships, improves management functions such as human resources and marketing, Critical for mentoring.
  • Negatives: Can be compromising when feelings are displayed in inappropriate contexts, can be overwhelming. Failure to control one’s emotions when empathising with others. If the situation continues for a long period, can lead to burnout or exhaustion.

3. Compassionate Empathy - “With this kind of empathy we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.”[4]

  • Focus: Emotion, intellect, action to assist. Understanding the other, knowing what will assist them, then helping them by doing it.
  • Positives: Considers the whole person. Using both the heart and the brain to assist another.
  • Negatives: Possible failure to contextualise, haste, disproportionate responses. The challenge is to feel for another and help them, but to avoid the level of feelings and pain that has enveloped them from enveloping you. This not easy.

The successful leaders use (consciously or not) Cognitive Empathy frequently, often daily. They speak to many groups all the time – that’s their job – and understanding and pre-empting the needs and wants of those groups is an essential component of the negotiation process and dealing with groups.

Although leaders may experience Emotional Empathy in certain contexts and with certain people, in the work environment it’s relatively rare. When you are a leader of a medium to large organisation, you tend to deal with experienced and senior people, not only within your own organisation, but also with external parties. Those people tend to be more mature and more able to control their emotions. That doesn’t mean that in a work context, leaders won’t display Cognitive Empathy, because they will, but it’s rarer.

In principle, Compassionate Empathy is the “gold standard” most people aspire to; it means a person understands, feels, and acts. However, there are some warnings for leaders who constantly and openly display Compassionate Empathy.

First, within the organisational context, not all empathy induced “actions” can be justified in organisational or situational terms.

Second, not all feelings, thoughts, and emotions of others are based on a fair and reasonable response to their realities. Just because a person became upset, does not mean that their response was a reasonable one in the context.

Third, a leader who is a strong Compassionate Empath is a person who is understood by others to be just that. That means that others learn how to manipulate and “control” them.

Four, people who consistently put the feelings of others before their own may experience some anxiety or even low-level depression. Those people need to be able to stop thinking and feeling for others so that they can give themselves sufficient thought and emotion to reinforce their self and their mental health.

This “gold standard” is a challenging space. Typically, doctors, nurses, ambulance para-meds, firemen, therapists, and many others regularly find themselves in emotional hurricanes and try to help others through it, because they understand the emotions and feelings that are occurring.

To do the work they do, they need to have a high empathic capability. Sometimes, these helpers manage their own emotions and feelings very well. Sometimes they don’t manage it.

Common are the stories about the helpers who absorbed the feelings and emotions of others and felt as distraught as the victims. Or those who had to take time off – to get away from the intensity of it all. It’s as if some people suffer from emotional overload and run out of spare emotions.

Leaders of organisations rarely suffer from such situations – but they do. When one or more workers are fatally injured at work, when they die on the road, when a mine collapses, when there’s a fatal fire, when a worker’s family suffers from intolerable harm – tragically, it does happen.

When a leader’s Compassionate Empathy is displayed at such events, it’s normally interpreted as a sign of their compassion and humanity – as it should be.

When a leader’s Compassionate Empathy in situations when it’s not “justified” in the eyes of others, then it is seen as weakness and shallowness. Probably a bit unfair, but very real, nonetheless.

Leaders who find it impossible to empathise, are probably narcissists. They use authority instead of understanding and their rule is horrendous.

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[1] Goleman, Daniel, 1995, Emotional Intelligence