The Limits of Empathy

imgres-5Early in my career, empathy was my ace-in-the-hole management technique. I was all business when it came to helping my team on technical, process and performance issues, but if they had an emotional reaction or issue, I reverted to empathy because it was the easy thing to do. I learned that when I was empathetic, people liked me more, and early in my career, I really wanted to be liked. In retrospect, there might have been a correlation between my empathetic management style and the glass ceiling I smacked my head on the first time around, but then again maybe not. One of the folks who got the job I wanted was a woman… (though now that I think of it, her management style was anything but empathetic.)

Empathy didn’t work on everyone, though. I remember Employee B at a subsequent job. He just pretty much hated me and did everything including lying to my face to try to undermine me – despite the fact that I was the one with the VP title. I was flummoxed and pissed off. I kept trying to empathize in order to connect, and failed time and again. I never did figure out Employee B.  I rejoiced when he transferred to another department and to this day I consider him my biggest management failure.

Empathy Off Balance

As I grew into leadership positions, I added more tools to my management toolbox, gained more confidence and relied on empathy less and less. But it was years later that I fully recognized empathy for what it is – an implement with very specific – and limited – uses in the leadership and management toolkit.

I recently had a business coaching client who helped me crystallize this learning. She was facing her equivalent of Employee B – someone who really got under her skin and had a personal beef with her, put her on the defensive and undermined her in public. She was flummoxed, just as I had been. What tool did she take out to try to reach this person? Empathy. “I keep trying to empathize and figure out where she’s coming from,” she told me. But what result did it give her? Frustration and anger – but worse, I could see her falling off balance, just like I had done with Employee B. She was falling off balance – out of her personal power – and losing her most important audience, which was everyone on the team BUT Employee B. Everyone else was watching her teeter off balance and wondering if she could right herself in time for the big deliverable.

So I vowed to help her learn the leadership development lesson I’d failed to learn when Employee B gave me the chance. I had her feel how her empathy for her troublesome Employee B was like an emotional thread connecting them. The more she deployed empathy, the more the other person tugged on that thread, pulling her into their sphere of emotional distortion until she was off balance and out of power.

Women use empathy so naturally that many times we think that being off balance for empathy’s sake is a good thing because being in their sphere means being so in touch with the other person that we’re actually helping them. Maybe this is why we keep turning to empathy even when it’s clearly not working. But when we’re out of our own power and off balance, we’re not helping them. We’re just feeding their illusion and giving away our power.

Regaining Balance – Find The Limits Of Empathy

As managers and leaders, we are stewards of company resources and goals, and we must do our best to stay clear on the situation as it actually is, unclouded by emotional distortions to the greatest extent possible. To be clear on the situation as it is, we must also be a steward of our own power. But when we’re off balance in empathy, we’re out of power, less adept at staying focused on our business targets and susceptible to the emotional distortions of others. We need to rely less on empathy and more on our judgment in order to respond appropriately, for the good of all involved.

By keeping ourselves in balance, we’re not being “cold” or “heartless,” we’re just being in our own power. This is a good thing! Let’s give ourselves permission to be in our own power first, before we try to help someone in need of our empathy, or strength.

Empathy Is Good For – What?

I’m not trashing empathy in the workplace. It is an important skill and has its place. It’s greatest gift is to ease the other person into understanding that we do have compassion for their situation and do understand their challenge, even as we focus on the business. This can open them up to us so we can help them in a management capacity. But stop the empathy there. Once they know you’re warm blooded and care, don’t keep falling into empathy. Studies show that managers who can use multiple management styles are more successful. Woman who learn to moderate this kind of behavior – using sensitivity when called for and more aggressive techniques as necessary – actually advance more quickly than men.

When exactly should you dial down the empathy and dial up the management perspective? Does it matter whether you’re managing or mentoring the other person? That’s a judgment call in each situation, and I believe it works the same in management and mentoring roles. However, if you imagine your empathy as a magic thread pulling at you towards the other person – and make sure you don’t lean in so far you wobble off center, lose perspective on the situation and lose your balance – you’ll be ok.

What’s your experience with empathy? Have you found it’s limits?


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