Effective management: Beware of the ’empathy paradox’
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Effective management: Beware of the ’empathy paradox’

Sometimes I think the law of unintended consequences explains just about everything that happens in the world. OK, that’s an exaggeration. But how else can you see a piece of research that was reported recently in the Harvard Business Review, dealing with what I call the “empathy paradox”?

Ah, yes, empathy. Walk a mile in your brother or sister’s shoes, and all that. Absolutely a human — and presumably also a managerial — virtue.

Not so fast. In fact, the new research, done by a team at London’s Imperial College, suggests that the more you try to empathize with an employee, the less clearly you see the person, and the less likely you are to actually manage the person in the way that is most beneficial to him or her — and you.

Interacting with employees
The research was done in the area of consumer goods marketing, and it focused on the effects of empathy when marketing managers tried to put themselves in their customers’ place. But the research team’s leader, Johannes Hattula, said the results can also be applied to manager-employee interactions.

The research’s big insight: When managers try to empathize, they project their own preferences and attitudes onto the people they want to empathize with. And they ignore evidence that these people aren’t in fact thinking like them.

So by trying to put yourself in the employee’s place, you may in fact be blinding yourself to what actually makes that person tick. You may be paying more attention to what you think the person needs, and you may be wrong. And paradoxically, you end up showing less actual empathy than if you’d left well enough alone.

Understand what you’re doing
Fortunately, you can escape the empathy paradox simply by being aware of it. Professor Hattula said that in a different piece of research, his team found that managers who were reminded of the possibility of “empathy bias” were better at avoiding it.

So by all means, try to understand what your people are thinking. But don’t let your imagination about the insides of their heads guide what you do. Instead, ask them what they want and need, and pay attention to their answers.

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