Dealing with Misunderstanding around Empathy

One question that frequently surfaces whenever I facilitate Emotional Intelligence workshops for leaders is the struggle some leaders have to balance between showing empathy and fulfilling their leadership obligations by making some of their team members accountable. They lament saying that ‘I really empathize with my people. However, some of my team members are failing to meet their obligations even if I kept giving them multiple opportunities to catch up.’ And, they ask, how can I lead the team successfully to meet our goals while demonstrating empathy to those who are struggling to perform without demoralizing other team members who are performing?

There is no simple answer to this bugging question because each team differs. I cannot give them a magical formula that works everywhere and every time. Acknowledging the challenge, however, I always encourage leaders to make sure to keep the balance between taking care of their people and delivering results.

Leaders who take care of their people at the expense of results and vice versa find themselves struggling in the long term. Leaders are put in place for strong reasons. Though they must take care of their people, at the end of the day, they must deliver and meet organizational goals. To succeed in this sticky position, especially in times like this, leaders should develop the right mindset, competencies, and character that allow them to keep the balance: Take care of their people and also meet their goals at the same time.

Successful leaders have the right mindset about empathy. They strongly believe that they have to put themselves in the place of their people, especially in those who are struggling. They also develop some emotional competencies to understand theirs and the emotions of others by listening actively and then demonstrating compassion giving ample space and support to those who may be facing challenges to fulfill their obligations. These successful leaders with high empathy also have a solid character where they have principles and consistency to meet their obligation for both the organization and its people.

I insist that it is possible to demonstrate empathy without dereliction of duties. Recently, I shared the observation of the biographer of Abraham Lincoln. She acknowledged his exceptional empathy and asserted that this same quality allowed him, though underdog, to become President and remain one of the greatest. She noted that Abe empathized with his rivals and in the process understood them very well that he was able to prepare himself better to beat them 🙂 Regardless of his exceptional empathy, however, when it came to his duty, he didn’t shy away from declaring war to defend the union. I can imagine the pain he had gone through knowing the lives that were going to be impacted. You don’t need to be a President to keep the balance. You may not face Abe’s kind of decisions, however, wherever you may be right now, you can keep the balance between empathizing and making your people accountable. It is challenging but doable.

Right now, think about Jesus- the exceptionally compassionate leader of all time, who was willing to defend His followers and willing to die for them. Regardless of His extraordinary servant leadership style and selfless character, He never wavered from challenging and making His disciples accountable while still loving and caring for them. On many occasions, rather than joining the emotional states of His followers, He chose to lift them up to the emotional state where He was in. For instance, He could have given His disciples, who were scared to death of the storm, a pass but He didn’t. He knew that they had what it takes to rebuke and quiet a ‘storm’.

If you’re a leader, are you demonstrating empathy while fulfilling your obligations? Don’t fall into this trap: Empathy can be misused to derelict one’s leadership responsibilities. You should also know that people who don’t make themselves accountable can also abuse it.

I shared some approaches for my audience to try to make sure that they keep the balance. What are some strategies have you been putting in place that guide you to keep the balance? Let me know those approaches that worked for you.

If you’re a follower, have you earned empathy? Don’t demand it; earn it. If you’ve been working hard and performing when you could, you earned the empathy of your leader when you need a break.