Having empathy is certainly desirable and is associated with improved relationships and better leadership impact, but are we overplaying its importance or misunderstanding it?
Empathy is considered to be a feature of emotional intelligence (EQ) and is assessed by EQ assessment tools. In using a number of these tools over the last few years we have noticed situations where clients score "well" on empathy (i.e. they are assessed positively to show empathy as a strength) when it's actually presenting a problem for them and their colleagues. This has happened fairly consistently. So why would an assessment interpret an empathy score above a certain level as being positive or a strength? The more you look into this the more it becomes clear that there is both a meaning and a measurement problem.
- cognitive empathy - "I recognise your pain", and
- emotional empathy - "I feel your pain"
Why is this important?
Paul Bloom and others caution that high levels of emotional empathy can lead to faulty and irrational decision making. In our practice at Managing Change we have seen examples of this particularly where it has prevented a leader taking a detached and measured stance on a very troubling or complex situation. More frequently seen though is the deep, personal cost to those doing the empathising (and often their colleagues).
In these situations leaders are described as being "empathetic" and score positively on EQ assessments for empathy*. The reality though is in them being overly emotionally drawn into the struggles and difficulties of others such that they:
- become ineffective in helping the person(s) in difficulty or in resolving the situation
- create emotionally charged and highly stressed environments for teams and colleagues
- burn themselves out as their energy and focus is consumed by anxiety over the situation
In short, emotional empathy like this leaves everyone worse off, and invariably means that an already poor situation is worsened. This has a significant negative impact on workplaces which we encounter on an increasingly frequent basis.
So, as coaches, consultants and leaders, what should we be developing instead?
#2 - develop self-awareness
It is important to recognise that when we indulge ourselves into feeling the pain of someone else we are not helping them and are probably simply being self-serving (albeit in a costly way). Reflecting on the underlying needs we are hoping to fill is a good start. Feeling strong emotions (even negative ones) through the safety of another person's feelings can be satisfying to those living fairly "numb" lives.
#3 - boost critical thinking skills
In these times of social media echo chambers this is increasingly important (and particularly so for children and the iGen generation, neither of whom have experienced a pre-internet world). This should include learning about CBT-type tools and approaches that teach detachment, rational thought and experimental thinking.
#4 - focus on developing compassion instead
Compassion is not a soft and cuddly approach. It is based upon the notion of "detached caring". Professor Paul Gilbert from the Compassionate Mind Foundation describes the effective practice of compassion as requiring the courage to care, the wisdom to know what to do, and the ability to take action to address the situation. This approach provides effective assistance to those who need it but crucially, avoids creating a costly emotional burden on the carer.
The Centre's website provides resources and information on courses to help develop your own and others' compassion.
We continue to find value in EQ assessments and continue to use them but we do so with this awareness and associated caveats in mind.