Risking Empathy as a Leader

7 minutes

I spent 30 years doing various flavors of global HR in the corporate world. My path took me from compensation analytics to European hiring strategies; I went from team member to c-suite. When you work with a variety of people over such a long time in different economic iterations, you learn a thing or two about human nature and how it plays into leadership.

As someone who came of age in the 80s, my career kicked off at the end of that decade. I had to boot my computer with two floppy disks, and a color CRT was a luxury. Because I did HR, my first office was in a basement with secondhand furniture that didn't look pretty through upstairs windows. The men wore suits in those days to create a uniform for the workplace. Women wore heels and hose. All this outward posturing led to armor to help keep anything personal from showing. The emotional aspect of anything at work was pushed down in public and relegated to private meetings or the golf course. I'll always remember one of my first boss's advice to me, "Check your personal life at the door. No one needs to know what happens in your life because they'll immediately latch on to it to exploit any weakness. Be tough." Wow. That little, off-the-cuff phrase has stayed with me my entire career. I know now that it was an awful strategy, but I saw it play out in many leaders over my career, especially those in my age group. But the generation behind me has found its way to hide in the corporate jungles.

The workscape has evolved. (Can I use that as a word? I like it.) We all show up to a drastically different environment than we did just three years ago if we even show up. The pandemic accelerated the grand experiment of remote work. No longer were we getting more casual with workplace attire. Many were juggling teaching children from the breakfast table while they worked from the dining room table. Front-line workers were pushed to the brink and had to operate from a survival mode. These were dark days, yet there was a palpable desire for everyone to "get over" it and return to whatever normal was. But people are tired. They need grace and understanding. They need empathy.

Empathy often gets labeled as a soft skill. I was not too fond of that label because I was considered an expert in soft skills for most of my career. That felt like I was an expert in milquetoast. I know now that labeling skills that involve emotion are often a way for others to minimize those emotions and make them seem less important so they don't have to experience the discomfort of embracing them. Interestingly, vulnerability and empathy are very closely tied. To explore our own experiences and share those experiences with others, we must be vulnerable. This idea is terrifying for some. It makes them feel exposed; for many, it makes them feel like less of a leader. When we choose to engage in vulnerability, we are inherently taking a risk. The goal is for that risk to pay off and for us to strengthen the human connection with our teams.

As a leader, we must connect to the people we lead. They must be able to see themselves in us and see us as human. We also need to see ourselves in them to understand how they are affected by change, deadlines, global pandemics, or even runaway inflation. I talk with a lot of leaders who want to be inspirational. They want the teams they lead to see them as someone to be emulated and admired. That is a worthy goal for any leader, but I also find some of my clients leaving out one of the most critical parts of getting there, connecting with their team on a human level. That connection requires both humility and vulnerability. Those two traits allow us to fully embrace empathy to communicate on the most basic and universal levels.

If there is one universal emotion I've become intimately familiar with, it's grief. That emotion is inescapable for us all. It's the price we pay for a deep connection to another human, whether in friendship, love, or family. In 2019 I was grieving. I had just lost the love of my life and had taken a new job. Ultimately, that would prove to be a recipe for disaster. In my grieving fog, I made mistakes I wouldn't usually make, and I found myself in political situations I usually wouldn't back down from but from which I kept walking away. But, on the other side of the equation, I found myself in a company that couldn't truly engage in empathy. That's not to say that there weren't genuinely empathetic people there or even people who understood what it meant to be sympathetic, but the vulnerability to be empathetic was lacking. Why? Because empathy is hard. It takes practice, self-exploration, and embracing vulnerability. Empathy is something we must choose.

At first, I thought this was just about me. I have come to learn that this isn't necessarily unusual. A colleague of mine recently lost a family member. She found herself in a different city, needing to help her family take care of all the details death requires, provide them with emotional support, and find her own time to grieve. Her company gave her three days to get all of this done. When she asked for more time, they responded, "Maybe you can work a little bit each day." It wasn't about whether she was ok, nor how they could support her, but how they could continue to get work out of a functioning asset. No one expressed their sorrow for her loss; no one told a shared experience of grief. No one knew how. Their inability to embrace empathy and vulnerability became a more damaging variable. Well-meaning co-workers asking her to continue working served to exacerbate her trauma. Risking empathy and leaning into our vulnerability risks the loss of feeling like we're in control of a situation. But were we ever really in control? Maybe letting down our guard and connecting on a human level is what we need to walk through these situations.

In working with my clients, I've often found that empathy is misunderstood or only partially understood at best. I can always tell a client who has grown up in the science fiction or fantasy genres. In their minds, empathy is the hallmark of someone who is an "empath." For them, empathy means literally feeling another person's emotions, resulting in a weakened state for the "empath." Who wants to be in a weakened condition? So they shy away from empathy as more of a fanciful concept. This is where we take a minute to engage in a bit of education about empathy.

Empathy is a hot topic among social and cognitive psychologists. While I like to think of myself as a leader in the field of empathy in the workplace, I leave the definitions and exploration of the concept to those folks. From their work so far, they all agree on three basic types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. To engage in empathy as a leader, it's helpful to understand each of these types of empathy so that you can explore them in yourself.

When we talk about empathy in the workplace, we talk a lot about walking a mile in someone else's shoes. This idea stems from cognitive empathy. This type of empathy is where we use our brainpower to identify and try to solve a problem. We may engage in this type of empathy in games of strategy or negotiations where we try to understand what the other person is thinking. I encourage leaders to lean into this type of empathy when working with virtual teams. Our usual physiological responses to other humans aren't necessarily triggered when we're on a video conference. This type of empathy translates well across a two-dimensional space. However, in person, it can make a leader feel cold. It takes "reading the room" to know when to engage this type.

Another form of empathy is emotional empathy. This type of empathy drives our ideas of the empath in science fiction. When we engage in emotional empathy, we feel the emotions of others. There are these little neurons in our brains that allow us to mirror the feelings of someone else. Scientists are still debating to some degree what these neurons are for in humans, but for our purposes, they allow us to mimic feeling the emotions of another human. This type of empathy can reinforce our connection in close relationship situations. However, if we're not careful, it can be inappropriate in the workplace. We must be in tune with the subtlety of when this type of empathy is appropriate and when it isn't.

Finally, I talk with my clients about compassionate empathy. This type of empathy takes a bit of mastery of the other two because it combines them and results in action. When we engage in compassionate empathy, we not only understand the predicament someone is in, but we can also feel with them and are spontaneously moved into action. When you hear coaches talk about compassionate leadership, this is what we mean. I like to see leaders working to achieve this type of empathy because it approaches others as a whole person. I hold myself out as a holistic coach – I coach not only the aspects of being an executive but also the individual components of an executive's life that affect them as a whole person. Often, as leaders, we are in positions that give us the resources to act on someone else's behalf. When we engage in compassionate empathy, we can find a middle ground from which we can work with just enough detachment to be adequate.

If we hold out compassionate empathy as the holy grail for leaders, there is inevitably some risk for leaders to get there. Since compassionate empathy strikes a balance between cognitive and emotional empathy, leaders must embrace vulnerability to get there. Vulnerability is quite the buzzword these days. People talk about it as a desirable trait, but only some are willing to work to get there. When we are vulnerable with members of our teams, we allow ourselves to explore the spaces where we can think and label our own experiences, fueling our ability to be better with cognitive empathy. We can also allow ourselves to feel emotions that we may not usually feel so that we can understand the pain or frustrations someone else is experiencing as they work through a situation. This can get scary for some executives who aren't as used to exploring their own emotions. Engaging vulnerability in this area requires work, self-reflection, and mindfulness. These are all things that I work on with my clients. I help them work to find that balance, so they don't end up oversharing or turning the focus of any conversation back on themselves. Ultimately, engaging in empathy is about the people we lead and the health of our teams.

Empathy is hard. Therefore, it takes work and a conscious effort to explore it within ourselves. It's risky because we may stumble across things we didn't realize were there. We may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable and shying away from difficult conversations. But, if we take that risk as leaders, our connection with those we lead will only be more robust. If we can embrace compassionate empathy, we not only strengthen that connection but we take action to make our teams better and allow them to feel more supported. As a leader, take a long look at your team. What could they do if they felt better understood and better supported by you? How much better could your decision-making be where they are concerned? Isn't it worth the risk to add empathy to inspiration?