We Don't Need More Empathy In Leadership


We Don’t Need More Empathy in Leadership

Two hands (hands that  take care)

The latest buzz in leadership is all about empathy, with many calling for more of it in our leadership style. The theory goes that if leaders were more empathetic, we wouldn’t have situations like the no-holds-barred culture that Kantor and Streitfeld described at Amazon. But is a lack of empathy really the problem?

The idea that we need more empathy in leadership implies that leaders are somehow consistently void of a certain level of empathy. Is it possible that people who get promoted are missing an empathy gene? This is unlikely because there is evidence suggesting that those with pro-social behaviors at work are more likely to succeed. Therefore, if promotion is any guide, these individuals must have been able to foster some thread of supportive behavior throughout their careers, as Adam Grant describes in his book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Moreover, if leaders have more empathy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used to serve the highest good. Buffone, Poulin, and Bloom suggest that empathy can actually steer us to become more violent towards groups that we see as different from ourselves and to protect only those who are like us or closest to us. For example, we are more likely to help a family member than to help a friend or a stranger.

What Does Leadership Need?

As I consider leadership in this technological age, which allows for a screen between ourselves and another person, I can’t help but think that it isn’t more empathy we need, but rather more connection. Perhaps our naturally occurring empathy is being blocked by a lack of connection with others. For leaders who exist in bubbles of minimal feedback and isolating hierarchical organizational structures, this may be even more relevant

Relationships at work support us in many ways. In a twenty year follow-up study on job-related psychosocial factors as predictors of mortality, Shirom and colleagues found that those who believed they had emotional support in the workplace tended to live longer than those who didn’t feel that they had emotional support from their co-workers. Other studies have found that when we are able to connect with one another, we are more likely to foster an environment that supports learning and more likely to experience positive emotion. In addition, in studies by Stephens and Carmeli and colleagues, this connection leads teams to experience greater levels of creativity and collaboration. For the organization as a whole, this means greater engagement from everyone, which impacts the bottom line.

Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan describes high-quality connections (HQC’s) as the life-blood of a thriving organization. She also describes the means by which we can create them, noting that these connections can occur even in brief moments of simple human interaction. Instead of telling leaders to have more empathy, perhaps we should foster improved relationships by getting out from behind those computer screens. When we do, it may just bring us back to our inherently empathetic selves.

How Do We Create High-Quality Connections at Work?

The table below summarizes the strategies described by Jane Dutton and colleagues, especially in her book, Energize Your Workplace, for building high-quality connections.


Strategy Behaviors
Respectful Engagement Engaging the other person in a way that sends a message of value and worth:

  • not interrupting
  • being present
  • withholding judgment
  • listening for what the person wants
Task Enabling Helping/facilitating another person’s successful performance:

  • offering input
  • advocating
  • offering flexibility
Trusting Conveying to the other person that you believe they will meet expectations and can be relied upon:

  • keeping agreements
  • sharing resources
  • seeking input
Playing Participating in activities with the intention of having fun:

  • letting go of an outcome
  • engaging in an old activity in a fun way (i.e. musical chairs)

This post was originally published in Positive Psychology News.

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