empathy Archives - Senior Executive

In the early days of the pandemic, empathy and empathetic leadership emerged as the premier topics of conversation in corporate America. As businesses shut their doors and employees began working from home, leaders understandably searched for answers to the big question: How do I keep my business operational while taking into account the unique and deeply personal challenges employees are facing?

As an organizational psychologist and empathy researcher, I was excited to see the term make its way into the mainstream workplace vocabulary, but there was still a learning curve as business leaders began to incorporate empathy into their organizations. In my work with executives across the country, I’ve encountered the same four myths about empathetic leadership that, if left unchecked, have the potential to seriously harm a business. Here are a few ways to mitigate that risk.

1.  ‘Empathetic Leadership Results in a Lack of Leadership.’

This myth is probably the most damaging of the four we’ll cover because it can limit how much empathy a leader ultimately shows their team. Typically, those who hold this belief fundamentally misunderstand empathetic leadership. They assume that leading with empathy means there is no clear structure within an organization and that everyone is so busy talking about their feelings all the time that hardly any work gets done—but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a recent survey found the exact opposite: empathetic leadership is actually linked with higher levels of productivity.

A lack of leadership often goes hand-in-hand with a lack of accountability across a team—from the executive board to entry-level associates. So how do you solve this? Ironically enough, by empathizing with employees and taking on a holistic approach to problem-solving. When people know their needs will be met with compassion and understanding, they’re much more likely to ask clarifying questions or take ownership of their part in an unsuccessful venture. If you’re concerned about a lack of clear, strong leadership in your organization, start by incorporating more empathy, not less.

2. ‘We Have to Have Similar Experiences to Empathize.’

Many people assume, both inside and outside of the workplace, that we can’t empathize with others unless we’ve experienced similar circumstances ourselves. However, empathy is about understanding the emotional experience of a situation, not necessarily relating to the situation itself. In her 2018 book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown summarizes it perfectly: “Empathy is not connecting to an experience. Empathy is connecting to the emotions that underpin the experience.” When confronted with a situation you think you can’t relate to, pause and ask yourself, “Have I ever experienced the emotion this situation is evoking for this other person?”

Let’s use conversations around DEI as a real-world example. These conversations can be polarizing, but they don’t need to be. When someone feels uncomfortable hearing about another person’s lived experience that’s different from their own, they might respond with, “Well that’s not my experience.” Responding this way can be hurtful to the individual, who will likely feel dismissed and unheard. This can translate to feeling largely unsupported by the organization itself, which could elicit a number of consequences such as disconnected teams and interpersonal conflicts.

I’ll say it again: Relatability doesn’t matter when it comes to empathizing. So let’s go back to our DEI example. Let’s assume during a company-wide training, someone is brave enough to share that they’ve been the target of microaggressions on several occasions since joining the organization. Even if you’ve never experienced microaggressions yourself, you can still understand why it would be traumatic for someone. Ask yourself: Have you ever felt belittled, condescended to or stereotyped based on certain aspects of your identity? If the answer is yes, then you can empathize.

Payal Beri

“In my work with executives across the country, I’ve encountered the same four myths about empathetic leadership that, if left unchecked, have the potential to seriously harm a business.”

– Payal Beri

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3. ‘Empathy Isn’t a Teachable Skill.’

Considering empathy is a “soft skill,” it’s understandable why some might assume that we either feel empathy or we don’t, as if there’s nothing we can do to change our intrinsic emotional response. But like any skill, it’s possible to get better with practice.

But how exactly do you “practice” empathy? You ask questions until you understand. If one of your employees tells you about a problem that’s impacting them and/or their ability to carry out their duties, start by asking questions such as, “Can you tell me more about that?” or, “How does this make you feel?” or “Is there anything I can do to support you?” From there, you can begin working on a solution.

It’s important to train ourselves to open up when we’re in uncomfortable situations instead of shutting down. If we give ourselves time to ask difficult questions, we can improve our empathy skills one issue at a time. But don’t get me wrong—there will be some growing pains. You will probably never fully understand every single situation, but over time, as you connect with a variety of emotional experiences, you’ll find it gets easier and easier.

4. ‘Empathy is Empathy—There’s Only One Type.’ 

This last myth is pretty easy to debunk considering the amount of research available on the three distinct types of empathy, but let’s dig into these distinctions and consider how each type of empathy can be useful in different professional situations.

The first type of empathy is cognitive empathy, or intellectually understanding what someone is going through but not experiencing those feelings yourself. Cognitive empathy is an excellent tool when you need to keep some emotional distance from a situation, such as when entering a negotiation. In these situations, you might hear someone say something like, “I understand you feel this way.” Granted, it’s not the warmest or fuzziest type of empathy but there’s definitely a time and place for it in your business.

The next is emotional empathy, sometimes known as parallel empathy, or when we sense and take on someone else’s emotions. Imagine for a moment that you’re a mentor to an up-and-comer in your field. You support them as they prepare to pitch a potential client, but ultimately, your mentee doesn’t close the deal. Afterward, your mentee is upset and a little embarrassed to have lost such a monumental opportunity, and although their loss doesn’t impact your business or career, you feel the same sadness and embarrassment your mentee is feeling. Emotional empathy can be an excellent tool when it comes to things like team building, but make sure you have firm boundaries in place or you might end up carrying every emotion as your own, which can leave you feeling exhausted and unproductive. 

Finally, there’s compassionate empathy, also known as reactive empathy, which I consider to be the highest level of empathy. Compassionate empathy makes you want to spring into action and provide tangible solutions to the problem at hand. Of course, if you lack boundaries and start trying to solve everyone’s problems, this type of empathy could present some issues. But in most cases, this is the kind of empathy you should strive for in your organization.

When one of your team members is faced with an issue, you’ll want to go beyond simply acknowledging their experience (cognitive empathy) in order to embrace those emotions as your own (emotional empathy) and actually provide tangible support as best you can (compassionate empathy). Your organization will almost certainly be better for it.

The ego has gotten a bad rap as of late, especially when it comes to business. You’ve probably heard a boss or a manager say some variation of the phrase “check your ego at the door,” and there are some who have even gone so far as to say that “ego is the enemy of good leadership.” These days, empathy has taken center stage, and with good reason. As organizations are still reeling from the effects of the Great Reshuffle and many workers call for their employers to be more human, empathy is having a moment.

As an organizational psychologist and empathy researcher, I don’t disagree with the heart of these arguments. It should be every leader’s worst nightmare to be described as an “egomaniac” who is unable or uninterested in hearing constructive feedback. But does that mean ego has no place in your business? Based on the years I’ve spent designing and developing leadership programs for global brands, I would argue that some ego is necessary to be the best leader you can be and run a successful business. Let me explain.

What Is the ‘Ego’ Anyway?

In the simplest terms, “ego” means “I” or “the self.” When we say someone “has a big ego,” we mean that they think too highly of themselves, or they’re too focused on themselves and not enough on those around them. But the ego isn’t necessarily a villain.

I often tell my clients to think of the ego like a bouncer at a club. If the ego had a job description its No. 1 responsibility would be to protect us from pain and embarrassment, which is a good thing, but it’s also the source of the ego’s bad reputation. Important leadership traits like self-awareness and being open to constructive criticism can be uncomfortable, painful and embarrassing. In these scenarios, it’s important that you’re able to recognize your ego and tell it to take lunch so you can actually absorb this feedback and grow as an individual and as a business leader.

But let’s consider an example of how our egos work to protect us can ultimately be a good thing. Take Jennifer Lopez’s recent documentary, Halftime. In the film, JLo discusses the onslaught of criticism she’s faced throughout her career, about her looks, her voice, her personality and so much more. Had she internalized all that feedback and given all of it the same weight, she wouldn’t be the actor, singer or performer she is today. Thanks to the ego, JLo was able to cut through the noise and apply the feedback that could actually help her grow—and ignore the rest.

The ego helps us draw those necessary boundaries so that we don’t take on every opinion or emotion as if they were our own, which can be a good thing. Your ego encourages you to trust yourself, your experiences and your instincts, even when others disagree. Your ego ensures that the empathy you show others is balanced with compassion for yourself because you’re worthy of care and respect, too. The ego isn’t empathy’s archnemesis, it’s empathy’s powerful sidekick.

Payal Beri

“Finding the balance between empathy and ego is the key to exceptional leadership.”

– Payal Beri

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Compassion for Self, Empathy for Others

Finding the balance between empathy and ego is the key to exceptional leadership. It can’t be all ego all the time, just like it can’t be all empathy all the time. Striking the right balance will look different for each leader, each organization and each situation, but let’s consider an example of what this balance looks like in action.

In May 2020, Airbnb made the difficult decision to lay off a significant portion of its workforce as the company struggled in the early days of the pandemic. Ego is inherent in any decision to cut ties with workers: You, the leader, are making a decision to move the company forward, despite the negative impact that decision may have on the livelihood of many colleagues.

But rather than make the announcement over a Zoom call and wash his hands of it (all ego), Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky wrote an open letter that clearly walked employees through the decision-making process before he outlined the generous severance package each employee will receive (ego and empathy). Chesky and the Airbnb team had to make a tough call, but by balancing that call with empathy, I would bet that Airbnb was able to maintain positive relationships with those employees—and potentially gained some loyal customers in the process.

Empathy Is a Superpower

In order to achieve your goals, both for your business and your career, you’ll have to strike the right balance of empathy and ego. Don’t think so highly of yourself that you can never be wrong. But don’t become so invested in other people’s emotions that you compromise your values and lose your purpose.

I truly believe that empathy is a superpower. Being able to tap into how others are feeling, consider other points of view and give them weight aren’t the skills of an average leader. But if you allow empathy to overpower you at every turn, you’ll quickly find you aren’t the one running your business anymore. Empathy is a superpower, but don’t let it become your kryptonite.