Can empathy in leadership be a bad thing?

Author: Kirsty Mackenzie, iMultiply CEO

Our Founder Kirsty Mackenzie has been pondering recently about leadership, empathy and the paths business leaders need to navigate:

‘I’ve started jotting down some of the ramblings in my head, carving out time to ponder and reflect. Encouraged by others who find ‘journaling’ beneficial, I’ve been trying it on and off.

I thought I’d periodically share some of the business-related thoughts/questions which pop into my mind. These are not meant to be well-written blogs; they are a brief brain dump or perspective share instead. I’m hoping you’ll share your point of view in return, allowing us to widen our viewpoint in the process!

‘Empathy, the ability to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ is useful in many circumstances. However, is there a downside to being an empathic leader? (Thoughts on a postcard please!)

Those of you who know me well will understand that I come from a close family where there is healthy competition and often some strong debates. Recently a family member asked how empathic we thought they were. The results were interesting and led to a conversation about whether someone is truly empathic if you can, as they claimed, ‘turn it on and off’ depending on the circumstances. For the record, I don’t believe it is something you can turn on and off, but I do think being empathic takes a combination of skills which you can work to improve. You could also debate whether empathy is a natural or taught skill. Of course, it may be both, which directed the family discussion to definitions!

Anyway, this conversation got me thinking about leaders needing to have ‘emotional intelligence’ (EI). One of the components of EI is ‘social awareness’ and this involves picking up social cues, understanding the needs of others and ‘empathy’ is often used in this context. So, I believe ‘empathy’ is important in effective leadership. I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve heard people say they wanted to leave a job ‘because their manager never listens’. How can they demonstrate empathy if they never listen?

These thoughts led me to explore different types of ‘empathy’. In sales you try and understand your customer’s needs, this can be described as ‘cognitive empathy’; you are understanding the problem from their perspective. There is ‘compassionate empathy’, which involves understanding and showing compassion for others without the need for being too involved. Then there is ‘emotional empathy’, this about really understanding emotions;  leaders who do this can be at risk of emotional burnout.

In essence, understanding empathy is useful for leaders. Understanding the components of empathy has helped me realise that leaders with too much emotional empathy can risk being drawn into areas beyond the boundary of employer/employee relationship, that may not be healthy for either party.

The leader-follower relationship is exactly that, a relationship, and what is a relationship if it has no compassion or empathy? Relationships however also need boundaries. So, can empathy in a leader be a bad thing? Well, there’s downsides but perhaps a better question would be, what level of empathy makes for the most effective leader?’

I’m interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on this, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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