Why are Leaders so Bad at Empathy?


Photo by Marina Vitale on Unsplash

At its core, leadership is a relationship. It’s no secret that connection is a key leadership skill.  If you can’t connect well, you can’t lead well. 

There are many practices to strengthen connection with those you lead.  However, the most powerful is the keystone habit of empathy.  Empathy–showing people that you understand them and that you care how they feel—is the foundation of genuine relationships.  It’s the fast track to connection.   

On the surface, expressing empathy seems like it should be common place. It’s a basic part of being human. But in the workplace, it’s not so common.   A recent survey by Businessolver found that while 92% of CEOs believe their organizations are empathetic, only 50% of employees believe their CEOs are empathetic.  In a work world filled with pressure, overload and deadlines, empathy is getting lost in the shuffle.

Why is leading with empathy such a problem for so many people?  It turns out that there are numerous obstacles to leading with empathy. One of the biggest of these is fear.  Empathy means addressing feelings. And, quite frankly, many leaders are afraid of feelings in the workplace.  This fear is rooted in one four causes:  messiness, the unknown, weakness, and inappropriateness.   

1.     Messiness

There’s a reason we love numbers in the business world.  Numbers are neat and tidy. They always behave as expected.  They’re easy to control. In a meeting, you know that 8 will always be 8.  It’s always one more than 7, and one less than 9.  It never goes off on a tangent.  It never holds a meeting after the meeting in the hallway.  It will never cc and bcc anyone on an email after the meeting after the meeting.  

Human beings, and our hidden emotional life, are much messier than numbers.  Bringing up emotions means risking a mess.  If you’re afraid of the loss of control this brings, you’re not likely to initiate an empathic exchange.  Unfortunately, this is precisely what’s happening.  Startling research published in Harvard Business Review found that 69% of managers are often uncomfortable communicating with employees.  Leading with empathy means getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

2.     The Unknown

Bob, a Managing Partner at a consulting firm told me, “If I ask my people how they’re feeling, you know what?  They might tell me.  Do I really want to know?   I’m not sure if I want all of that information!”

For leaders like Bob, emotions are off limits.   Bob’s got a strong work ethic, a drive to achieve, and a bias for action.  He’s a got a calendar filled with meetings and a to-do list that’s bursting at the seams. 

Emotions?  They could take him into uncharted territory.  They’ll use up time, energy and focus that could be spent elsewhere.  In the moment, Bob would much rather stay with the known of the task than get into the unknown of the relationship.  In fact, he’s not even aware that empathy deserves a spot on his to-do list. 

3.     Weakness

What do you believe makes for a “strong” leader?  How does that belief influence your own leadership?   Do you view leadership through a lens of power, or of service?

Autocratic leadership—ruling with unlimited power—appeals to a part of the human psyche.  For some people, there’s a strong attraction to being on the receiving end of unquestioned loyalty and total obedience.  There’s a reason that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  

If you embrace leadership from a power-centric worldview, you’ll fear empathy.  Sharing your feelings (or allowing others to do so) is strictly off limits.  Others would see you as soft, weak, and vulnerable.  For an “Old-School” leader, these are liabilities that could be taken advantage of.    

Paradoxically, showing vulnerability takes great courage and strength. Being empathic is a way to start being vulnerable. If you’re willing to risk letting go of the Old-School leadership image of strength, you’ll find the strength that you replace it with is far more connecting and sustainable. 

4.     Inappropriateness

Some leaders have a deep-rooted belief that work is no place for emotions. This is work, after all.  “Check your feelings at the door” is an unwritten policy in many organizations. 

However, if you stop to consider it, no one ever really does that.  You can’t “check your feelings at the door”.  What you can do is suppress your feelings at the door. 

The sad truth is that suppression of emotion is business as usual.  A study by Deloitte found that 61% of all employees “cover” their identities in some way.  That is, they mask some part of themselves.  They are afraid of bringing their whole selves to work.  

When people mask themselves, they can’t help but feel disconnected.  This isolation creates a vicious cycle of a low-trust, high-fear disengaged culture. Research done by Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath has found, “Feeling cared for by one’s supervisor has a more significant impact on people’s sense of trust and safety than any other behavior by a leader. Employees who say they have more supportive supervisors are 1.3 times as likely to stay with the organization and are 67% more engaged.”   

The benefits of being an emotionally intelligent leader are clear.  Want to get started?  Invest time in relationships.  Listen with purpose.  Be curious.  Show people you understand them and care how they feel.    In short, lead with empathy. 

Why else are leaders bad at empathy? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

3 thoughts on “Why are Leaders so Bad at Empathy?”

  1. > Why else are leaders bad at empathy?

    Another couple reasons are 1) that many people believe it’s something you’re born with and 2) schools don’t teach it. Actually, they often teach the opposite of it — that is, many educational institutions teach facts, analysis, reading and writing papers, and other impersonal things that disconnect us from each other.

    I find that we can teach and learn empathy like a skill. Like any skill, it improves with practice and atrophies without it.

    Reply
  2. > Why else are leaders bad at empathy?

    Another couple reasons are 1) that many people believe it’s something you’re born with and 2) schools don’t teach it. Actually, they often teach the opposite of it — that is, many educational institutions teach facts, analysis, reading and writing papers, and other impersonal things that disconnect us from each other.

    I find that we can teach and learn empathy like a skill. Like any skill, it improves with practice and atrophies without it.

    Reply

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