Paul L. Caron

Monday, November 16, 2020

The Role Of Empathy In Effective Leadership

Wall Street Journal:  Joe Biden Promises Empathy, but That’s a Difficult Way to Lead, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

EmpathyStop me if you already know this, but Donald Trump did not win the presidential election. Neither did Joe Biden.

On Saturday night, during a drive-in pep rally in Delaware, the Biden campaign revealed the true winner on two giant video boards behind the stage.

They said: “The People Have Chosen Empathy.” ...

The prevailing view is that empathy is a good thing for humans to possess: It's a positive and unifying social force for good. But the people who study it are increasingly less convinced. What’s even murkier is the relationship between empathy and leadership.

Studies have linked highly empathetic leaders to popularity and the ability to build better working relationships. But another pile of data suggests they can be indecisive and ineffectual in making tough decisions. ...

Many people still don’t understand what empathy means: They mistake it for compassion or sympathy. Empathy is about understanding and sharing the emotions of others, or “getting” where they’re coming from. Compassion is when we have powerful feelings of warmth or concern for somebody who is suffering. Compassion can be pleasurable. Empathy is hard work. ...

Another challenge, in times of crisis, is that leaders also need to display strength. If you’ve positioned yourself as an empathetic leader, it’s a lot more difficult to make unpopular decisions, even if they’re objectively the right ones. ...

One study, published in January, looked at the leaders of companies that had gone through a crisis, and what role empathy played in the outcome. The authors concluded that a chief executive’s response to a crisis is “fundamentally” shaped by empathy, but that empathy is both a blessing and a curse.

On the positive side, the empathetic CEOs were generally more attuned to the concerns of their people and better at collecting the information they needed to diagnose the problem. They were better at comforting others, avoiding blame and repairing the team’s ability to work together. They were more adept at convincing outsiders that the company cares.

On the other hand, they were often so empathetic to their people that they struggled to assign blame. They worried more about repairing internal relationships than fixing the problems that caused the crisis, and were sometimes biased in favor of decisions that would relieve anxiety and pressure. ...

Overall, the researchers believe that empathetic leaders are usually more effective in the early stages of a crisis, when relationships matter and finger-pointing doesn’t help. Over time, however, the magic wears off. They tend to focus on the wrong things and struggle with hard choices. ...

In the final analysis, I don’t think empathy would make a very good president. It’s a useful tool to hang on the pegboard, but it’s not a comprehensive leadership strategy.

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

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