The dark side of empathetic leadership: Is it harming your business?

The dark side of empathetic leadership: Is it harming your business?
Nigel Kilpatrick
Nigel KilpatrickCompassion In Business

Posted: Fri 28th Jul 2023

I recently posted a poll on LinkedIn, and asked one very simple question about leadership qualities, with three very simple answers. The results were not a surprise.

The highest-voted leadership quality, with 70%, went to empathy. Being recognised as compassionate received only 30% of votes, and being sympathetic didn't rock anyone's boat.

Empathy and compassion: The differences

The results indicate that there may be a misunderstanding between the meanings of empathy and compassion. I describe the differences like this:

Empathy and sympathy are emotions, whereas compassion is the intention. Simply put, compassion is empathy and sympathy put into action.

The differences between empathy and compassion don't just end with their descriptions. There are actual scientific and biological differences that result in how business decisions are made and their subsequent outcomes or consequences.

What the science says

In the brain, compassion is activated by the medial orbitofrontal cortex, while it's the insula and anterior cingulate cortex that activate empathy.

So there is a science behind the dark side of empathetic leadership. Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that having empathy in your leadership style is bad. Far from it. However, I am saying that empathy on its own can lead to harm.

Empathy is often considered a positive trait in a leader, one that fosters a sense of connection and understanding with employees. But what happens when empathy is taken too far?

While empathy can be a powerful tool, it's important to understand its limitations and the potential consequences when overused in a leadership role.

What is empathetic leadership?

In my early career, while managing one of the UK's largest restaurants in the West End of London, I took it upon myself to put empathy at the top of my leadership style. I managed over 120 members of staff, for a business that had an annual revenue turnover of over £10 million. Our workforce was made up of a very diverse mix of individuals.

The responsibility on my young 22-year-old shoulders was immense. As you read on, I hope you pick up on why my decision to lead with empathy caused me immense stress and overwork.

At its core, empathetic leadership is all about understanding and connecting with your employees on a deeper level. It involves actively listening to their concerns, showing concern for their struggles, and creating a supportive work environment that encourages growth and development.

However, the potential downside of empathy in leadership is that it can lead to burnout and decision paralysis.

Potential pitfalls of empathetic leadership

Empathetic leadership has become increasingly popular in recent years, with many business experts arguing that leaders who prioritise empathy are more effective at motivating their teams and achieving success. While empathy can be a powerful tool in leadership, there's also a dark side to this approach that can harm your business.

Decision paralysis

When you become too invested in your employees' wellbeing, you may find it difficult to take tough decisions or hold people accountable, fearing that you'll upset or disappoint your team or workforce.

Culture of dependency

When team members feel you're always there to solve their problems, they may become reliant on you, leading to a lack of independence and initiative.

It's essential that you encourage team members to take ownership of their work and develop problem-solving skills. Hold them accountable for their actions and make sure everyone is working towards the same goals.

Biased decision-making

While it's natural to feel more connected to some team members than others, this can harm overall team dynamics and performance if it creates a perception of unfairness or bias. Recent research has shown that people who lead with empathy are more likely to enjoy seeing people not in their peer group suffer.

When you're too empathetic, you may prioritise the needs and wants of certain team members over others, leading to a skewed perspective that can harm the business. As a leader, you need to remain objective and consider all perspectives when making decisions.

Lack of diversity and inclusion

Our natural human state is to gather as tribes and connect with what we see as similar. We're more likely to be empathetic to our neighbour having their bike stolen than we are a homeless person who's suffering in the cold and without food.

Leadership burnout

As an empathetic leader, you may become so invested in your team's personal and professional lives that you neglect their own wellbeing. This can lead to burnout for you and your team, resulting in lower productivity and a negative work environment.

If, in the early stages of my career, I'd learnt the strategies I list in the next section, I would not have:

  • suffered from an ulcer at the age of 23

  • worked 90 to 100 hours a week on behalf of other people

  • prioritised work or the need to be taking care of others, which meant I gave up friends and things I loved to do

  • been diagnosed with cancer at the age of 26

  • been forced to leave an industry that I loved

Avoiding the negative effects of empathetic leadership

Showing empathy can be a double-edged sword. However, you must be able to make tough decisions and hold people accountable, even when it's uncomfortable. This requires setting clear boundaries, seeking diverse perspectives, and staying focused on the bigger picture.

So, how can you strike a balance between empathy and assertiveness in leadership?

Seek out diverse perspectives

One strategy for maintaining balance is to seek out diverse perspectives from people who have different backgrounds and experiences. This can help you gain a more well-rounded understanding of employees' needs and concerns while also challenging your own biases and assumptions.

Focus on the big picture

If you focus too much on being empathetic, you may lose sight of the bottom line and fail to achieve your objectives.

While it's important to be empathetic and supportive, you must always keep your eye on the prize and make decisions that are in the best interest of the business as a whole.

For example, take the case of a small start-up that was struggling financially. The CEO was so empathetic towards his employees that he refused to make any tough decisions, such as laying off employees or cutting back on expenses. As a result, the company eventually went bankrupt.

In contrast, another business faced a similar situation but took a different approach. The CEO was empathetic towards his employees but also recognised the need to make difficult decisions.

He communicated openly with his staff about the company's financial situation and worked with them to find solutions. While he had to lay off some employees, the company ultimately survived and even thrived.

Setting clear boundaries

As a leader, it's important to remember that you're not your employee's friend but rather their manager. By setting clear boundaries and expectations, you can avoid burnout and resentment that can arise from overly empathetic leadership.

The example above teaches us that empathetic leadership is an important quality to possess, but it's equally important to balance it with assertiveness and clear boundaries if you want your business to succeed.

Holding employees accountable

How can you recognise when empathetic leadership is becoming harmful? A big indicator is when employees aren't meeting their goals or performing at a high level. Another is when there's a lack of accountability for poor performance or bad behaviour.

To strike the right balance between empathy and results, you must focus on creating a healthy workplace culture. This means setting clear expectations for performance and behaviour, and holding employees accountable when those expectations are not met.

It also means creating a supportive and inclusive environment where employees feel valued and appreciated. In other words, strive to be a compassionate leader over an empathetic friend.

Relevant resources

Nigel Kilpatrick
Nigel KilpatrickCompassion In Business

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