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Beware the Empathy Trap

Melanie Zens

Delivery, Operations & Transformation Leader / Certified Executive Coach at Marais Consulting Inc

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Empathy in Leadership: Finding the Right Balance

"Putting empathy into practice is more complicated than it sounds."

"Being too empathetic can impact your effectiveness as a leader."

Empathy in leadership is getting a lot of buzz lately. Recent data ties empathetic leadership to employee engagement and well-being.* However, it is important to understand that putting empathy into practice is more complicated than it sounds. It can be ineffective and even harmful if applied in the wrong way.

If someone is struggling, empathy is one response in a range of emotions. When you are empathetic, you feel what the other person feels. By mirroring the other person’s emotions, you are absorbing their energy.

This is the downside of empathy. If you overdo it, it can be an energy sucker. Being too empathetic can impact your effectiveness as a leader. Your own ability to take action and truly help the other person is at stake.

Pity and sympathy are emotional responses that can involve both feelings and actions. You feel for the other person without internalizing their emotions. If someone is struggling, they may not be capable of taking action themselves. You risk developing the habit of taking action for them.

It takes less emotional energy to tell someone how to solve a problem or to solve it for them. This could damage their long-term growth and autonomy. Responding with compassion is an action that helps the other person solve the problem on their own. It can be fueled by other feelings – pity, sympathy, or empathy – without getting stuck. Ultimately, you are empowering the other person and restoring your own energy as a leader.

Emotions aren’t black and white. Understanding the potential downside of empathy will ensure you find the correct balance of supporting your team when they need it most.

For more information linking empathy to employee engagement, check out this EY study: https://www.ey.com/en_us/news/2021/09/ey-empathy-in-business-survey#:~:text=A%20staggering%2089%25%20of%20employees,trust%20among%20employees%20and%20leaders

*Source: EY Empathy in Business Survey


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Melanie Zens

Delivery, Operations & Transformation Leader / Certified Executive Coach at Marais Consulting Inc


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