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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Nov 27, 2020


Empathy seems to be essential for effective leadership, but can it be overdone? This week we explore empathy in leadership, and whether it’s underrated or overrated.



Hello and welcome to episode 103 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore empathy in leadership, and whether it’s underrated or overrated.

The topic of empathy in leadership can lead to some really interesting conversations. Many leaders will talk about empathy being absolutely essential to leading others effectively - and they’re right. Others will talk about the risk of empathy leading to burnout as we take on the concerns of others - and they’re right too. So is it just a trade off? Is being empathetic to others and the impact on my own well-being just something I need to accept? Or might there be a different way of thinking about empathy altogether.

Dr Paul Ekman was the co-discoverer of micro-expressions and inspiration for the TV series Lie to Me. He describes three types of empathy - cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy. 

Cognitive empathy is being able to see someone else’s perspective and understand what they might be thinking. So when a new person starts with your organisation, cognitive empathy might help you appreciate that they’re unlikely to know their way around the office. You might offer to show them around or leave them hanging. Cognitive empathy is just about perspective taking - putting yourself in their shoes to see the situation from their perspective.

Emotional empathy involves feeling what someone else is feeling. For example, if a colleague’s computer crashes and they lose a document they have been working on for an hour, emotional empathy allows me to understand that they might be frustrated and upset. After all, if I was in the same situation, that is what I would be feeling. Again, I might offer to help or try to console them, or I might just leave them to have their moment.

Compassionate empathy involves having a genuine concern for the other individual. If I’m demonstrating compassionate empathy, I don’t just understand how the other person is thinking and feeling, but I also want to help.

It’s more than likely you’ve heard someone describe the neurological basis for empathy - that we have mirror neurons that fire up when we see another person experiencing an event, and they’re the same neurons as the other person. There’s pretty good evidence for mirror neurons amongst primates. If I pick up a piece of fruit, a nearby primate might have neurons in regions associated with that movement also activate. However, the jury is still out on whether this extends to humans at an emotional level. That could well be the case but, beyond the initial excitement in the press, the jury is still out.

What is more certain is our brain’s ability to empathise with someone else’s emotions being separate from our ability to see a situation from another person’s perspective. It appears that cognitive empathy and emotional empathy have differing underlying neurological bases. Cognitive empathy appears to involve areas of the brain associated with remembering the past or fantasising about the future. Emotional empathy involves processing of things like facial expressions and speech patterns. As a result, it is entirely possible for me to demonstrate one kind of empathy without the other. For example, I could see you trying to restore that lost document and intellectually get what you are doing, but not be able to appreciate just how much that frustration is impacting your emotional state.

A great leader is able to appreciate both thoughts and feelings - to use both cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. To sustain that, the leader needs to be selective in compassionate empathy. There are times where it makes sense to get in and help - where you can see a team member is upset and needs comforting and assistance. However, in my experience, the leaders that struggle with the burden of being too empathetic over apply compassionate empathy. They’re too quick to try to solve others’ problems. They take on the fear, anxiety or sadness of others as their own. That can become crippling. It can get in the way of us making good decisions. It may even make things worse for the person we’re trying to help. As leaders, I believe we need to primarily focus on cognitive empathy and emotional empathy - to figure out how the person is thinking and feeling. Then we can determine what, if any, help we want to provide - we can choose to use compassionate empathy.

So, empathy - it’s difficult to overrate its importance to our leadership. But I think compassionate empathy can become overrated for some leaders, particularly if it means they can’t continue to be there for their people.

As always, there are links to the references that Ive used in the podcast in the show notes. A big thanks to both the British Psychological Society for their excellent research digest, and also to the team at Science Daily. I use both of those to keep across the latest research. Have a great week and I look forward to speaking with you next week.