Q: I think I’m an empathetic leader, but is there a limit to empathy?
As far as soft skills go, empathy is routinely considered one of the most important skills a leader should have. Empathy, the ability to understand and share in the feelings of another, is seen as a welcomed antidote to common workplace stresses and hostilities such as harshly worded feedback, missed deadlines and disagreements, and can contribute to positive experiences, better anticipation of stakeholder concerns and even more productive meetings.
Innovation. When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they could be innovative—61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders.
Engagement. 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported engagement, compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.
Retention. 57% of white women and 62% of women of colour said they were unlikely to think of leaving their companies when they felt their life circumstances were respected and valued by their companies. However, when they didn’t feel that level of value or respect for their life circumstances, only 14% and 30% of white women and women of colour, respectively said they were unlikely to consider leaving.
Inclusivity. 50% of people with empathetic leaders reported that their workplace was inclusive, compared with only 17% with less empathetic leadership.
Work-Life. When people felt their leaders were more empathetic, 86% reported they are able to navigate the demands of their work and life—successfully juggling their personal, family and work obligations. This is compared with 60% of those who perceived less empathy.
(Source: Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research)
But failing to recognise the limits of empathy can impair performance. Here are some ways too much empathy can hinder its positive effects:
Excessive empathy can distort your judgement
Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, and empathising with their stress and challenges, tends to prioritise them disproportionately over others. A good example of this was illustrated in a Yale University study where (in a fictional circumstance) a young girl with a fatal disease was placed on a waiting list for treatment to relieve her pain. Sadly, the waiting time was rather long. When the participants in the study who learned about this young girl’s predicament were informed of the opportunity to bump her up the list so that she could receive her treatment sooner, most (nearly 75%) were in favour.
Yet, what was less evident, was that to move her up, other children in similar circumstances would have to be bumped down, many of whom might have been more deserving. This is what psychologists call the “identifiable victim effect” — i.e., knowing the person affected makes it much more likely you would act in their favour, regardless of the impact on others.
Empathy in every circumstance demands trade-offs
The more empathy is devoted to one person, the less can be afforded to another, which can worsen situations. In this study, researchers examined the trade-offs associated with work and personal, empathetic behaviours. People who reported workplace behaviours such as taking “time to listen to coworkers’ problems and worries” and helping “others with heavy workloads” felt less capable of connecting with their families. They felt emotionally drained and burdened by work-related demands.
Coupled with the previous point, it’s easy to see how empathy toward insiders—say, people in our families, teams or organisations—can limit our capacity to empathise with people outside our immediate circles.
Empathy is exhausting
As with any cognitive task that requires processing lots of information, empathy takes up mental resources, and excessive empathy can result in prioritising someone else’s feelings and needs over your own. Perhaps it’s no surprise that jobs that routinely require empathy, such as health and human service, customer service or charity work, are often at risk of “compassion fatigue”, an acute inability to empathise driven by stress and burnout.
If empathy is important and too much is a problem, your challenge is knowing where to draw the line. Striking a balance is essential to reap the benefits of empathy while limiting any drawbacks from excess.
Be rational and compassionate
Your role as a leader is to understand your team's pain but not to feel it. Try contextualising complaints or negative feedback to offer objective direction and maintain a rational perspective.