The other day I was coaching a leader that was complaining that his boss lacked empathy. In this case, the boss was demanding an increase in the level of performance of the team. The manager (I was coaching) felt that the boss was not paying attention to the circumstances surrounding the lack of performance. Then it happened… the manager shared his real concern: ”I feel that by I have more empathy than my boss. Maybe if he understood what was happening in our business, he would be less focused on the numbers.”
I have found that most leaders are almost always playing a role - they are either the boss in the above example – or they are the manager. To understand which one you are, and what to do about it read more…
It sounds sort of wimpy to a lot of leaders. To others leaders it can become a rationale (or excuse) for not holding their team accountable to reasonable expectations of performance. However neither of these responses is accurate or appropriate when using empathy in a leadership context.
The Corruption of Empathy.
Empathy can be defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Based on this definition, it is actually not possible to have ‘too much empathy’ – however it is possible to allow your empathy (whether it is high or low) to become an obstacle to effectively managing a team.
In fact, the word empathy was hardly ever used prior to 1950, and then it’s use ramped up rapidly. The understanding of how to use empathy in a leadership context has been evolving over that time. When human resource professionals started to try and address their low scores on workplace engagement surveys, they often determined that part of the problem was that leaders had little or no empathy for the people they were seeking to lead. Since leaders seemed to be completely focused on the numbers, some HR professionals determined that if only we could make them ‘nicer and gentler’ versions of themselves then we could have both business results and happier employees.
I call this the corruption of empathy because empathy does not necessarily involve being nicer and gentler. Often it involves very frank and honest conversations that hurt at the time – however we can all attest to the fact that we are better for having had a leader that cared enough to speak the truth with love.
The Accountability-Support Continuum:
One of the concepts we teach in LeaderShift is a model called the Accountability-Support continuum. In this model, Accountability Focused Leaders tend to be more preoccupied with the numbers, while Supportive Leaders tend to be more aligned and understanding of the situation that the people they seek to lead are experiencing.
Which one is better? The answer of course is BOTH. As a leader, you are accouable for achieving results. However, in order to achieve those results you must understand the how your employees ‘see’ the problem so that you can more effectively coach them into different behaviors in order to achieve better results.
When we ask leaders where they would rate themselves on that ‘Accountability-Support Continuum’, most leaders says they are about in the middle.
An therein lies the problem, as very few leaders truly can strike a balance between accountabilty and support – especially when they are under pressure. Now, I am not saying it is not possible – just that most leaders make assumptions about where others would place them.
Who Really has Empathy?
So who really has empathy? It would appear at first glance that the Supportive Leader is more empathetic. But are they?
It may be that Supportive Leaders are no more empathetic than their Accountability Focused cousins. If empathy is understanding and seeing as others see, then Supportive Leaders may be as guilty of prideful arrogance as anyone else. Think about it. Essentially Supportive Leaders are saying that ‘they get it’ and their boss and/or peers do not. What they really have for their employees is sympathy, as they have ‘bought in’ to the way their employees see the problem. In doing so they have abdicated their position of leadership, and can no longer help their employees navigate their way through the problem.
So while there is no question that an Accountability Focused leader needs to increase their empathy by reaching out and making more effort to understand the challenges associated with changing results, the Supportive Leader must also not use their Empathy as a crutch to excuse poor perfromance.
How do you balance Accountability and Support?
- First you must find out what your natural orientation is, especially under stress – Accountability or Support. Do not presume that you know the answer to this question – I have seen too many leaders get this wrong! By the way, if you are a Supportive Leader you cannot task your employees for feedback on this question. The will inevitably tell you that you are a balanced leader. And if you are an Accountability Focused Leader you cannot ask them either because they will reluctant to be completely truthful. Instead find some peers and ask them – as well as your boss.
- Once you know where you reside, start working on developing the muscle on the other end of the continuum. If you are a more Accountability Focused Leader, start with reading this blog post USING GOAL SETTING AS A DEVELOPMENT TOOL. If you are a more Supportive Leader, you will likely encounter a fair amount of defensivess when you attemt to speak with them about their lack of production. Consider starting with this blog post HOW TO COACH AND DEAL WITH DEFENSIVENESS EFFECTIVELY.
Empathy is a critical skills for you as a leader to develop – you can never really have too much – but you can use it inappropriatley!
Here’s to your success!