Don’t believe those empathy myths

Empathy is a quality that’s sorely lacking among many of today’s leaders

Empathy is a quality sorely lacking among many of today’s leaders, even though it is exactly what is needed within modern organizations.

Some leaders have dismissed empathy altogether, continuing to subscribe to old-school leadership tactics and models such as “command and control.”

Others, however, may be curious about empathy and how it can enhance their leadership, but they are swayed by powerful, persistent myths.

These empathy myths are rooted in ways of thinking that just don’t work anymore. They are remnants of a time and place that hasn’t existed in decades.

Leaders who continue to subscribe to these myths find themselves at the helm of organizations that fail to keep up with the times. Their stubborn insistence on avoiding empathy as a key component of leadership puts them at odds with employees. It creates discord and keeps these leaders from connecting with employees in real, human ways.

Engagement drops, productivity decreases and people begin to look for better work elsewhere.

Busting the myths

To me, empathy is essential for successful modern leadership. I have seen numerous leaders take a leap of faith into a more empathetic approach; every single time, it has yielded improvements in engagement, morale, productivity, employee satisfaction and even profitability.

My own career took off in a big way, too, when I started to become more openly vulnerable and empathetic. Yes, it is a “soft skill,” but make no mistake: Empathy is responsible for solid-as-concrete results for those leaders who take it seriously.

Nevertheless, unhelpful and untrue myths continue to persist:

1. Empathy requires superhuman effort

Some leaders want to lead with more empathy, but they feel it will require an effort too large to bear in their busy lives.

The truth is that empathy does not require extra effort. In fact, avoiding empathy takes more time and energy than practising it. Why? Empathy is a core aspect of human nature. It comes naturally, but our culture often tells us we need to suppress it or it is too much of a hassle to engage in day-to-day interactions.

When you show empathy to others, one of the first things you will notice is just how easy it feels. It requires almost no effort at all once you recognize the unconscious actions you take to avoid feeling it.

2. Empathy is weakness

When did empathy become equated with weakness? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the two ideas became conflated, but they could not be further apart in reality.

Empathy is a sign of tremendous strength, but it is not easy to practise. That’s because society, culture and old-school leadership advice have muddied the waters, convincing people they should avoid looking “soft” or projecting anything but strength.

I don’t get it. Showing empathy to an employee who makes a mistake requires much more strength than being punitive in your approach. Empathy requires leaders to confront their feelings and have meaningful interactions with those who need guidance, which is the opposite of weakness.

3. Empathy is inappropriate in the workplace

Humans are emotional, empathetic creatures by nature. Therefore, discouraging emotions and empathy in the workplace is a recipe for disengagement and will produce low to average productivity.  

Certainly, each organization has standards of propriety in terms of how people should conduct themselves. Work must get done, so it makes sense that organizations should focus on productivity over feelings to a degree. But to deny human aspects such as emotion and empathy is not realistic.

Empathy is not only appropriate in the workplace, it is necessary.

4. Having empathy for someone means agreeing with them 100 per cent

There is a popular misconception that empathy means you agree with another person’s feelings, ideas and perceptions. This may not be the case at all. You can use empathy to understand what another person might be feeling while also disagreeing with them.

Empathy does not require you to change your values, beliefs or preferred approaches to doing business. Rather, it requires you to understand that other people have different ideas — and that’s OK.

When you can understand another person, you begin to realize the reasons for their choices and actions. Then, you can use your leadership skills to inspire them to work differently. Without empathy, I just don’t see how this is possible.

It’s not about agreement; it’s about understanding.

5. Empathy clouds leaders’ judgment

Some might argue that empathy keeps leaders from being decisive. They fear empathy might cloud their judgment and ability to make sound decisions. They worry they will spend too much time considering the voices of others, making them seem wishy-washy or unable to provide direction.

Here’s the truth — a lack of empathy is what clouds judgment. When leaders fail to consider the views, opinions and ideas of others, they make uninformed decisions that can lead to organizational chaos or failure.

But when leaders use empathy alongside their decisiveness and vision, they can make decisions that people can get behind, allowing for greater success.

6. Empathy cannot be learned

I must admit that empathy does not come easy to some leaders. Some people seem to be born with it or have an innate sense of empathy as a source of strength. Others just don’t seem to have a feel for soft skills such as empathy.

Leaders who do not feel a natural sense of empathy may believe it’s not worth their time to incorporate it into their respective skillsets. But they are just as capable as anyone else when it comes to developing essential soft skills for leadership.

Empathy is a feeling, but it also has an intellectual aspect. The more a leader learns about empathy and its measurable, positive impacts, the more they may be inclined to tap into their emotions, unlocking empathy.

If you are a leader who is just “not feeling it” when it comes to developing empathy, you probably need to take an approach that’s more conducive to the way you learn and change behaviours. In other words, some leaders do better by approaching empathy via the head instead of the heart.

Either way, empathy is something that can be learned.


Joanne Trotta is the founder and managing partner at Leaders Edge in Toronto. She can be reached at (855) 871-3374 or joanne.trotta@leadersedgeinc.ca. For more information, visit www.leadersedgeinc.com.

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