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The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader

Being an Empathetic Leader Can Be Dangerous - TBM Payroll

Although empathy is a great skill to have, sometimes it doesn’t fit well with leadership. This article that we wanted to share with you comes from TBM Payroll.

The Dangers of Being an Empathetic Leader

To enhance engagement, many leaders are told they need to be more empathetic. Empathy is the skill of understanding and recognizing others’ feelings and perspectives. As a leader, that skill is obviously important. You cannot effectively lead someone you don’t understand. You can only motivate and influence a person when you know how they feel. There are good reasons that experts like Daniel Goleman have hailed empathy as a core competency of good leadership. Empathy increases life satisfaction, emotional intelligence and self-esteem. People with high empathy have larger and more fulfilling social networks, are more social themselves, volunteer more readily, donate more to charity and are more likely to help others in need.

Empathy is an enduring individual characteristic that’s relatively stable over time and across a life span. It can be increased through mindfulness training. Not surprisingly, Amazon’s search engine returns more than fifteen hundred books with the word “empathy” in the title, with many of them also including the words “leadership” and “management.” Research into the neurology of empathy, however, provides a more nuanced picture — at least from a leadership perspective. Empathy has some pitfalls that every leader should understand.

Empathy can lead to poor decisions.

Empathy can be a poor moral guide. Yes, you read that correctly. Empathy often helps us do what’s right, but it also sometimes motivates us to do what’s wrong. Research by Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy, discovered that empathy can distort our judgment. In his study, two groups of people listened to the recording of a terminally ill boy describing his pain.

One group was asked to identify with and feel for the boy. The other group was instructed to listen objectively and not engage emotionally. After listening to the recording, each person was asked whether they would move the boy up a prioritized treatment list constructed and managed by medical doctors. In the emotional group, three-quarters of participants decided to move him up the list against the opinion of medical professionals and potentially putting other individuals at risk. In the objective group, only one-third of the participants made the same recommendation.

This study demonstrates how empathy triggers our altruistic impulses, resulting in poor judgment that could harm many people for the benefit of one person. As leaders, empathy may cloud our moral judgment. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions.

Empathy can hamper diversity.

Studies find that humans empathize more easily with people similar to themselves. Even animals that resemble us receive more of our empathy. Just think of a baby seal with it big round eyes, as opposed to a chicken. Which would you more readily kill and eat? They are both living beings with the instincts to avoid danger and death. Yet we discriminate. We’re more likely to kill and eat the chicken with its small, cold eyes and feathers. Similarly, we easily empathize with our neighbor whose car is stolen and less easily with the homeless person on the street.

Much in the same way, we unconsciously empathize with colleagues who are similar to us. We tend to offer them better assignments and better positions, all unknowingly. Empathy can also mislead us to hire and promote those like ourselves. It can create an organization that suffers from lack of diverse perspectives limiting problem solving and creativity.

Empathy can be too narrow.

It’s hard to truly empathize with more than one or two people at the same time. Try it. Take a moment to have true empathy with two people close to you. Right now. Feel their challenges. Feel what they feel. Difficult? Maybe impossible.

The mind — or heart — simply can’t hold such different emotions at the same time. Empathy for one can be difficult; for two, even more so. As a leader, we often need to consider the different perspectives and concerns of multiple people at the same time. Empathy is simply too constricting to help us effectively navigate multiple perspectives and concerns.

Empathy can lead to distress.

Taking on the suffering and troubles of others is tough. For a moment, imagine being an emergency room doctor, treating victims of traffic accidents, violence and other horrific injuries. You see people hurt, some even dying. You see the pain of relatives losing loved ones. Hour after hour, day after day.

A well-known reaction to this type of situation is empathetic numbness, simply shutting down our emotional reaction to others. As a result of seeing all this carnage, doctors shut down their emotional life. Too much empathy in some situations can lead to distress. A U.S. study found that 60 percent of medical professionals suffer from or have suffered from burnout. A third of them have been affected to the point of having to take a sabbatical from their jobs.

As leaders, there are many times when members of our team will face tough situations. They may lose a big client. They may not get the promotion they wanted. They may get into a conflict with another member of the team. If we take on the disappointment, anger, frustration or impatience of the people who report to us, we will become exhausted. Empathy in leadership can drain us.

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