Why Do Leaders Lack Empathy?

Last Wednesday was a sunny, crisp, beautiful Fall New England morning.

That’s when it all went terribly wrong.It was already 8:10 am, and I was hurrying to get Miranda, my nine-year old daughter to school on time.Her school’s about a mile from home, and thus far this school year, we’ve been riding our bicycles to get there and back most days.

Wednesday, Miranda would have none of it.  She was upset, and cried out, I don’t want to bike to school today!  I’m not biking to school!Feeling rushed (and irritated by her outburst), I did not handle this well.

My tone escalated:We’re biking to school!She countered,  I don’t want to!I said, We are!She said, I’m not!

(You can see where this was going.)

It wasn’t pretty.I had defaulted to the classic pattern of “Because I’m the Daddy, that’s why” school of leadership.Even as it was happening, I knew I wasn’t handling the situation well, but plowed on through anyway.   Tears were shed, bikes were ridden, and she got to school on time.You could say that “I’d won the battle” that morning.However, that victory came with a cost.

It didn’t take a whole lot of reflection on my part to realize that I was behaving as a lousy leader that morning with Miranda.  My command and control style had dented our relationship.

My story is not unique.  At some point in time, it happens to most of the parents I know.

However, I share this example because it offers a window into one of the biggest challenges that leaders face:  cultivating empathy.

The Upside of Empathy

According to Emotional Intelligence author, Daniel Goleman, empathy is defined as (1) understanding the emotional makeup of people and (2) treating people according to their emotional reactions.  Empathy is a cornerstone of Emotional Intelligence.  People with a finely tuned sense of empathy are better at building relationships, trust, and collaborating more effectively.

On the flip side, people with low empathetic skills are more likely to handle conflicts poorly, be insensitive to signs and signals for help, and alienate colleagues and team members.

A study conducted by the Center for Creatively Leadership investigated 6,731 leaders from 38 countries. They found a strong correlation between job performance and empathy.

Humans are neurologically wired for empathy.  Our brains have cells called mirror neurons, which are designed to reflect the actions and emotions of others.  Mirror neurons fire when you do an action, and also when you simply watch someone else doing the same action.  This is why you feel pain if you see someone else in pain.Empathy has all these benefits.  Yet, leaders are still challenged to develop and express it in moments when its sorely needed.

Why do leaders lack empathy?

Three Challenges to EmpathyChallenge 1: Power

It turns out that being “drunk with power” is more than just a metaphor.It’s real.In a recent study, psychologists Michael Inzlicht and  Sukhvinder Obhi, found that   when people experience power, it changes how sensitive their brains become to the actions of others.

They conducted experiments to induce feelings of power or powerlessness in their subjects, by asking them to recall a time of power (or powerlessness.)

The subjects then watch a video of a human hand squeezing a ball–and were measured with how much their mirror neurons responding to the video: a standard scientific metric for determining empathy.

The more powerful they felt, the less the mirror neurons fired.  The less powerful, the more they fired. Last Wednesday, I leveraged my authority to overrule Miranda and her feelings without even acknowledging them.

As you rise into higher positions of power, it becomes easier to lose touch with those “below” you.  Do you connect to the front line? Do you see them beyond little boxes at the bottom of the org chart?

Challenge 2: Time and Attention

Mirror neurons kick in strongest when we actually notice a person’s emotions.  This means we actually have to perceive their entire physicality: their body language, gestures, facial and eye movements.   To notice means to pay attention.  This means spending time and focus on that other person.If you’re rushed (like I was with Miranda), or have your head buried in your phone, you may be tuned out to the feelings of others.   The sad truth of the workplace is stress begets more stress, and the ability to empathize decreases.

On Wednesday, my hurried state made me believe “I don’t have time for Miranda’s feelings – we have a job to do.”   If you are working in a state of constant pressure, you may be challenged to slow down enough to be aware of what others are feeling.Paying attention is an investment that pays long-term dividends.

Work to minimize distractions in the moment when interacting with others.  You may think that you’re being efficient and multi-tasking.  You’re not: multitasking is a myth.  You’re just shifting from task to task, and doing them all poorly.For leaders, relationships matter.  How can you give your time and attention to them, even when it’s inconvenient for you?

Challenge 3:   Disagreement

When you have to make decisions, not everyone (surprise!) will agree with you all the time.  When someone disagrees with you (I’m not riding to school!), do you cling so hard to being “right” that you forget the other person has a completely different perspective?

Cognitive empathy is the ability to take someone else’s perspective.  You don’t have to agree with them, but you can understand how they feel.  If you get so attached to your own side of the story, you can become rigid to the point of callousness.

As a leader, you may have the position and authority that allows you to have the final say.  However, there’s a big difference between having not having a vote and not having a voice.  Giving people some psychological air—room to express what they think and feel—can make a big difference.

What other challenges do leaders have to becoming more empathic? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below. 

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