Empathy, Engagement, and Leadership

About Empathy Versus Sympathy

Empathy and sympathy are both important social emotions. Concerning sympathy, no lesser a legend of the Enlightenment than Adam Smith (yes, the father of capitalism) argued that it is our capacity to feel sympathy for the others that lies at the root of morality and ethics. Sympathy is our capacity to resonate with the pain, adversity, or suffering of others, but the feelings are ours, not theirs; they’re construed from our life situation and standpoint, not theirs; its ultimately more about us than others.    

As such, sympathy may be sufficient to awaken “moral sentiments” and prompt acts of conscience. This moral emotion facilitates many prosocial attitudes, acts of kindness and concern that cause followers to experience their leaders or colleagues as caring, worthy of loyalty, important precursors of commitment. Although sympathy may ease and enrich an attitude of empathy for others, empathy is quite distinct in two ways, in terms of self-other awareness and self-other orientation.     

We may feel sympathy quite spontaneously and without an elevated level of self-other awareness, which arises from reflection. Empathy, on the other hand, especially as it pertains to the role of leaders, implies a cultivated capacity to notice one’s own attitudes, thoughts, and feelings and those of others in a specific context. This is what I would characterize as “situated empathy,” and it is directly relevant to the persons, roles, goals, and responsibilities specific to the situation.     

Similarly, we may feel sympathy without having a great deal of understanding of or empathy for others. Rather, the subjectively felt effects of sympathy concern resonance with a universal moral emotion. Empathy, on the other hand, explicitly focuses on grasping another person’s experience (positive or negative) from their standpoint. It enables us to appreciate how they are feeling, thinking, and inclined to act, how they construe the situation, and by extension what they may need from their leader.     

Now, let’s consider what might impede our ability to engage others empathically as a leader. With that in mind, we will conclude with some observations about what promotes empathy, and how it might be cultivated in the course of leader development.  

What Blocks Empathy?

Among the barriers to an empathic quality of engagement with others are factors stemming from our individual psychology as leaders and from the presenting situation. Here are a few:     

1. Self-focused preoccupations.  Although this may be a constitutional vulnerability for some of us (see item 2), it may also be accentuated or amplified when we find ourselves in new roles or facing novel and daunting challenges. Our confidence can be shaken, we become distracted by concerns over how our performance is being evaluated by other, especially superiors or vital stakeholders. It can undermine a balanced quality of self-other awareness, resulting in a mostly self-orientation.      

2Insecurities in relating to others.  This often includes flawed and disabling beliefs formed early in life about what we should expect from relationships with others. We may have learned that it can be risky opening up to others; we make ourselves vulnerable to attack or risk alienating others from whom we want or need support. Such assumptions may create social anxiety or a preoccupied attitude; they may cause us to tune out to feelings, our own and those of others. Expressing that kind of experience (affective experience) may seem particularly dangerous.     

3Compensatory motivations.  This may manifest in a variety of ways, but the common theme of this kind of motivated behavior is a felt need to compensate for perceived inadequacies. It includes a) behaving in ways to win favor (excessive accommodation of others), or, alternatively, b) it may manifest in tendencies to assert over-confidence and self-importance (arrogance or narcissism). It’s a self-protective mask (defense mechanism) lacking in authenticity and keeping the focus on self.     

4. Acute stress, strain, and exhaustion.  In our fast-paced world of commerce we can lose our internal locus of control while trying to keep up with time-based performance demands. Whether self-imposed or situationally induced, we become physically, emotionally, and mentally less able to cope. We become depleted, less able to attend to others, less patient and motivated to care about others, perhaps even resentful of the felt demands of others.   

Of course, there may be other specific ways in which our personal capacities to cultivate and deploy an empathic quality of interaction with others may be impaired. Moreover, the blocks identified above will intermingle and interact differently to undercut our capacity for empathy in any given situation. But in any case, it is our responsibility as leaders to discover and adaptively mitigate such potential barriers to empathic engagement. So, let’s consider a few ways that might be done.   

What Promotes Empathy?

Since I must keep this brief, let me identify a few key elements of development that promote empathic leadership. I’ll limit myself to three.

First, since you are the means of your efficacy in empathically connecting with others, it stands to reason that a rigorous, in-depth course of self-examination must come first. It will help you identify the qualities inherent in your personality and interpersonal tendencies that may serve to help or hinder your efforts. This occurs best in a professional relationship (informed by assessment data) with someone who can challenge and support your exploration, your reflection on key themes, and then help you “situate” them in your specific working environment, with your particular constellation of stakeholders.

Second, and arising from the coaching relationship, is the task of honing your skills in jointly reflecting upon one’s experience of a presenting social-organizational situation that includes heightened levels of challenge. We learn by doing, by personally experiencing what it is like to thoughtfully consider the task-oriented, psychological, and social-relational elements of challenge. What’s it like to notice how we feel in the course of that reflective journey, what do we find ourselves thinking, what do we feel confident about and what shakes our confidence? We are then able to bring this skill into empathic dialogue.

Third, formulating schemes of action for the situated challenges we face that provide us with explicitly structured strategies for engagement that proceed from elevated levels of self-other awareness and that ensure a balanced self-other orientation. This is deliberate, purposive, action planning based upon a clear and current appreciation for the business challenge at hand, both the task and relationship aspects of the challenge. With whom do we and those we lead need to collaborate? What will it look like? How will we position ourselves to notice (and discuss) how things are going? 

Conceptually, this all may seem clear, perhaps even simple. In practice, as we seek to operationalize all of this, there will be many micro-moments of recursively navigating joint reflection and action planning of a more specific kind. The joint reflection must be conversational and the action planning must translate our emerging insights into concrete ways of behaving that generate results and build capacity. Beyond these principles, we must rely on our determined efforts to realize them in action, ready to learn from our successes as well as from our frustrations and failures.