What is empathy & how should leaders use it the workplace?

Stepping into a leadership role intensifies the pressure to not only deliver results but also to meet the emotional needs of your team. In today's rapidly evolving business environment, where burnout is ubiquitous, one quality stands out as a beacon, striking a fine balance between productivity and wellbeing: empathy.

According to the 2022 State of Workplace Empathy report, 69% of CEOs believe it’s their job to build empathy in the workplace, yet 79% say they struggle to be empathetic. These struggles have driven employees to look to their managers for day-to-day empathy. So what is empathy, why is it important, and why does the workplace struggle with it?

Empathy is imagining and understanding another person’s thoughts, perspectives, and emotions. Empathy (and lack of it) is a hot topic when discussing wellbeing, team dynamics and workplace culture. We see it in the leader unable to relate to their teams and the teams who no longer understand each other and don’t feel cared for. 

Against a volatile economy where fear, job uncertainty and poverty are reaching a high, empathic leadership benefits are hotly debated. The pressure for leaders to be “more human,” more caring and supportive highlights today’s world’s emotional needs. Yet, empathy as a management style raises concerns over burnout in leaders who feel too much and absorb the complex issues their teams and organisations face. 

Psychologists and Coaches undergo years of training to support people through the ups and downs of life. Alongside learning the tools and techniques needed to support people, their professional conduct emphasises the importance of prioritising their own mental, emotional and physical health. Without safeguarding themselves, how can they be expected to support others? This highlights a strange dichotomy; leaders are expected to emotionally and practically support the people in their care without formal training or understanding of how to safeguard themselves. In today’s emotionally charged world, it’s easy to see why leading with empathy can be both beneficial and dangerous.

Yet, without empathy, relationships deteriorate. Empathy gives us a sense of connection and belonging, a relief from complicated relationships and a haven between people that builds trust and hope for the future. In basic terms, empathy accelerates job performance and wellbeing as it makes us feel validated and understood.

Understanding the three main types of empathy and how to use empathy effectively at work gets us closer to building stronger relationships where people get what they need at work.

What is Emotional Empathy?

Emotional empathy is sharing an experience on an emotional level. When you’re experiencing emotional empathy, you’re connecting with another person’s emotions in a very personal way. You may even experience those emotions as if they were your own. If a friend tells you that he got fired, you might feel bad for him even though it has nothing to do with you. What you’re experiencing is emotional empathy. Most people associate this type of empathy with supporting people through emotional distress, but emotional empathy is there when we feel excited for the successes of others, too. It means we can readily understand and feel what they feel and respond in ways that savour good experiences or support them in moments of distress.

Emotional empathy is contagious. The upside is that you can celebrate the ‘wins’ at work. The downside is that one person’s dissatisfaction or distress can bring a whole team down.

What is Cognitive Empathy?

In contrast to emotional empathy, cognitive empathy is much more rational and logical. It’s empathy by ‘thought’ rather than ‘feeling’, enabling an understanding of another person’s thoughts and feelings without engaging in their emotions. This type of empathy is often called ‘perspective-taking’. You might disagree with that person, but you’re still able to understand what their life is like and how they feel about different situations. It’s a valuable leadership skill that allows leaders to recognise how their people think and feel and take practical steps to move forward.

Food for thought.

The problem with engaging in only the logical and rational practical aspects associated with cognitive empathy can leave people feeling like their feelings aren’t being validated. Conversely, leaders who experience high levels of emotional empathy can feel their team members’ distress so acutely that they can become emotionally distressed and no longer function effectively. Emotional empathy can lead to stress and exhaustion in an organisation charged with uncertainty and distrust because taking on other people’s struggles becomes more challenging and demanding over time.

In the workplace, the reality is that people who want or need your empathy don’t just need you to understand (cognitive empathy). They typically don’t need you to feel their pain (emotional empathy). More often than not, they need compassionate empathy.

Compassionate Empathy: the sweet spot.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, cognitive empathy hit the spot when navigating workplace issues. Challenges like team dynamics, high workloads or professional development benefited from a logical perspective, enabling leaders to add value and resolve potentially volatile situations without emotional involvement. The issue is that we’ve all struggled with the pandemic on an emotional level, so the cognitive empathy that worked so well before for leaders is no longer enough. Cognitive empathy can be perceived as under-emotional in a post-pandemic world, which is arguably all about feelings. Feelings around fears of job losses, grief, financial and health worries and the challenges and uncertainty of intense change. In this context, expecting leaders to engage in emotional empathy, to experience another person’s emotions as if they were their own, is not healthy.

Compassionate empathy enables leaders to give people what they need by finding the right balance between emotion and logic. Compassionate empathy involves understanding how a person feels and why whilst taking steps to help them to take action to resolve the issue.

Key leadership strategies using compassionate empathy:

Compassionate empathy involves understanding how a person feels and why whilst taking steps to help them to take action to resolve the issue.

Supporting someone can be intense for so many different reasons. Whether it’s around professional development or personal issues, it all involves emotions;

  • If emotional empathy is your natural default setting, take a step back. This first strategy is important for leaders who find it difficult to separate their emotions from those they work with. It might feel counterproductive or unkind, but it’s only when you emotionally step back from that person that you can help solve the problem. 
  • Ask “what do you need?” This simple question immediately makes others feel validated and that you are taking their feelings and perspectives seriously. It also allows that person to think proactively about what they need. 
  • Resist solutionising. As a leader, that can feel near impossible but remember the focus is on enabling people to feel heard and understood. Most people, most of the time, don’t need a solution; they need you to listen and to feel like you care. 

 

While the ability to create their own solutions in real-time is a trait that leaders crave in their teams, leaders often need to work on creating environments where this kind of behaviour can flourish. These first three strategies offer a framework for compassion. A process in which people feel heard and understood whilst ensuring you don’t become too emotionally entrenched in the situation yourself. It builds trust on an emotional level and is a good first step towards finding a way forward. 

  • Give people the support to find their own answers. 

Most people would like the opportunity to solve problems themselves. The first three strategies help leaders work on their approachability and create a safe environment where people can explore and find their own solutions and grow. Give people the support to find their own answers. Try minimising your own interference and see yourself as a resource, not a micromanager. 

In a nutshell

In today’s volatile world, connecting with people in a way that makes sure everyone gets what they need is a tough challenge for leaders. Emotional empathy needs to be practised wisely. When it comes to ‘good news’, it’s a powerful thing to connect emotionally. It creates solid, trusted relationships that help ride the storm when things become challenging. If emotional empathy is your natural default, it requires the self-awareness to take a step back when someone is struggling, which can be difficult. This is when practising emotional empathy can impact your mental health, resilience and performance. It’s helpful to remember that taking a step back on occasion is kind. Although cognitive empathy has many advantages, it can be perceived as under-emotional and overly logical. It may resolve many issues your people have, but it could leave them feeling like their feelings are misunderstood or not relevant. Practising cognitive empathy risks reducing everything to longer. (like Mr Spock from Star Trek). Our post-pandemic world requires the right balance between emotion and logic.

This balance requires compassionate empathy, understanding how a person feels and why whilst taking steps to help to take action to resolve the issue. Practising compassionate empathy is a strategic advantage for a leader. It builds a strong platform for trust and encourages people to explore their own solutions. It’s a win-win for everyone.

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