Empathetic leadership: It only works when employees believe it’s real
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Empathetic leadership: It only works when employees believe it’s real

Leaders frequently hear that it’s important to show empathy with the employees who report to them. It’s true. People appreciate it when you feel their struggles or their joys. And empathy makes you a better leader and manager. A study of 15,000 assessments of individual leaders found that empathy was the most important skill for interacting with employees, ahead of skills like developing their ideas and enhancing their self-esteem.

But if you express your empathy the wrong way, you can inadvertently make things worse. It’s all about the language you use. Choose your words carelessly, and you risk giving the impression that you’re talking empathy without feeling it. Employees don’t trust a boss they perceive as insincere.

Here’s a scenario that illustrates the point.

Josh manages Kerry, whose house has just burned to the ground. The family’s possessions, including treasured keepsakes, were all lost. Josh thinks it’s appropriate and humane to empathize with Kerry. So he imagines how he’d feel if he lost his own home. He thinks he’d be very grateful it was insured. He tells Kerry, “I’m so sorry to hear that. At least no one was hurt and hopefully your insurance will cover the costs.”

Kerry looks at Josh, then says stiffly, “Insurance can never replace what we’ve lost.” She leaves without another word.

It’s not about how you would feel

What did Josh do wrong? Didn’t he sound as if he cared about what happened to Kerry? On the surface, maybe. But there’s a significant experimental study that explains the mistake Josh made.

In the experiment, directed by prominent social psychologist Daniel Batson, researchers had participants listen to a fabricated recording of a young woman who claimed to be in dire need. Some participants were told beforehand to imagine how the woman felt. Others were told to imagine how they would feel in her shoes – a subtle but important wrinkle compared with the first group.

The participants were then interviewed about their emotional state. Those who imagined how the woman herself felt showed a high level of empathy. But those who imagined how they would have felt in her place showed personal distress, which is pretty much the opposite of empathy. It’s concern about the effect of another person’s emotions on yourself.

Faux vs. real 

This is what we might call faux empathy. It looks like empathy – after all, it has to do with the other person’s pain – but it’s really about relieving our own concern about that pain.

You’ve probably guessed that Josh’s well-intentioned comment about insurance came across to Kerry as faux empathy. Josh was thinking about how a catastrophic fire would make him feel, not how it was making Kerry feel, so his comment backfired. Josh wanted to send Kerry the message that, “I feel your pain,” but Kerry left the room thinking, “You just don’t get it.”

Faux empathy often looks like this:

  • Putting a positive spin on the problem: “Good thing you have insurance…”
  • Minimizing the problem: “At least the cancer hasn’t spread…”
  • Comparing the problem: “I knew one guy who had the same thing happen…”, or
  • Advising how to fix the problem: “If I were you, I’d call a lawyer…”

What could Josh have done to show true empathy?

The words will come

If Josh had simply listened carefully, then imagined how Kerry was feeling — not how he would have felt — the right words would most likely have come to him naturally. He might have said something like, “Kerry, that sounds really hard.”

There are other scenarios where empathy is called for. If a relative has died, you might say, “Grieving for a loved one is so difficult.” If an employee’s child fell ill, you could say, “This must be worrying you a lot.” If someone’s spouse lost their job, you might say, “It’s got to be stressful for you.”

Empathy is relevant in good times, too. If an employee is sharing a positive experience, you could express true empathy by saying something like, “You must feel tremendously elated,” or “Accomplishing that goal must feel awfully good.”

Remember, if you’re focusing on the other person’s situation, not your reaction to it, the right words will come. And your employee will know and feel that you care.

This blog entry is adapted from the 5-minute Rapid Learning video module “Empathy: Do Employees Think Yours Is Real or Faux.” If you’re a Rapid Learning customer, you can watch the module here. If you’re not, but would like to see this video (or any of our other programs), request a demo and we’ll get you access.

The blog post and Rapid Learning Video Module are based on the following research studies: Development Dimensions International (2016), High-Resolution Leadership: A Synthesis of 15,000 Assessments Into How Leaders Shape the Business Landscape; Batson, C. Daniel et al., (1997), Perspective Taking: Imagining How Another Feels Versus Imaging How You Would Feel, Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 23(7), 751–758.


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