Research shows that empathy is a very positive leadership trait. A recent article in Forbes declared that Empathy Is The Most Important Leadership Skill According To Research.
However, when you consider your experience with leaders, do you find that many of them lacked sufficient empathy?
My experience working as a therapist specializing in helping professionals (such as social workers, doctors, nurses, allied health professionals, and educators) is that the most empathetic people tend to also be the most hesitant to lead. When they do end up in leadership positions, they don’t always know how to use their empathy as a strength, and can easily end up hindered by it.
The latest research shows that empathy can lead to staff retention, better outcomes, and innovation. These findings will inevitably lead to more training for existing leaders on how to be more empathetic.
I believe this will not be fruitful. The truth is there are already so many very competent professionals who are highly empathetic who could be leading more right now. But they are not. My professional goal is to support and encourage this group of people.
Why might teaching leaders to be more empathetic fail? I think this is because lower empathy people have less psychological distress related to tension and conflict, which is inevitably part of being a leader, and are more motivated by prestige and power. They have some advantages by NOT being empathetic in terms of being attracted to roles where they have more money, power, and influence.
High empathy professionals are more interested in making a difference and can be far less interested in financial incentives and increased power.
But arguably the biggest issue in convincing empathetic people to step into leadership roles is the psychological distress they experience related to tension, change, and conflict.
Empathy is, afterall, understanding how another person is feeling and to be able to see things from their point of view. Empathy can be intense.
Being a leader means you are working to bring others along a journey towards a goal, mission, or set of values. During this journey, leaders must make decisions that are in the best interest of the group or in service of the goals and values. People will not agree on the decisions being made.
This can be very painful for an empathetic leader. When you are aware of others’ feelings, and see things from others’ perspectives, the instinct is to help the other people feel okay.
But when you are a leader, you realize not everyone is going to feel good, and your decisions are the source of these feelings! That can be very distressing.
Imagine a new school principal and one of the key things they are working on in this role is creating a more inclusive environment for staff and students. As the leader, you have to look at, and at times change, norms within your school, including some things that have been beloved traditions. The Father-Daughter Valentine’s Dance may not feel inclusive. Asking families to pay for field day t-shirts may leave some people out. A holiday-themed concert requires some re-working to honor a variety of cultural backgrounds. Challenging these traditions ruffles feathers. Inevitably change will cause tension.
What the empathetic principal needs is the right stance towards tension and feelings. Having an understanding of others’ feelings doesn’t mean you should necessarily work to change them. It can simply help you be more tactful, communicative, and caring as you move toward change.
An effective, empathetic leader knows that it’s not always what is decided, but often how it’s decided and communicated, that makes the most difference.
Empathetic leaders can’t simply dodge conflict and hard decisions. They can’t make everyone feel okay. These misguided instincts lead to dysfunction and resentment, and hinders an organization. Empathy without effectiveness can cause real harm.
Effective, empathetic leaders express care and consideration, but are also clear in their decisions and follow through. They say that they can understand why it’s hard. They listen. This hypothetical new principal looks for ways to honor tradition but also update the institution with the values of inclusivity and belonging.
Our effective, empathetic principal makes decisions that not everyone likes, but everyone knows the why and what values have anchored this decision-making process. This fosters trust and respect, and a functional, caring institution.
My focus is on helping already empathetic leaders use their empathy in ways that are effective, avoiding the trap of managing everyone’s feelings and creating pain and chaos. I also help new and would-be leaders feel more confident that doing good requires them to step out of their comfort zones.
You CAN learn to tolerate making decisions, people’s discomfort, and tension. You have to in order to make the biggest impact.
For empathetic professionals the alternative is often to suffer under less than effective or caring leaders by putting their “head down” and “carrying on.”
This leads to frustration and burnout and robs you of the positive impact that drove you to your profession in the first place.
If you work, and you care, why not figure out how to have the biggest impact?
Hannah Curtis, LCSW is a compassionate leadership and burnout prevention expert who works with individuals and organizations to transform work cultures. She is the creator of Compassionate Leaders, a coaching group for the next generation of inspired, caring, and effective leaders that focuses on confidence, communication, boundaries, conflict management, and interpersonal skills. For more information, email Hannah at [email protected] Applications are now open for the next 6 month program, check out all the details here: https://forms.gle/1imwsAsRAZ1mMw9u8