Do Managers Need To Have Empathy?

It turns out that practicing empathy brings with it a number of risks
It turns out that practicing empathy brings with it a number of risks
Image Credit: Sharon Sinclair

If you have attended any manager training recently then you have probably been told that you need to boost your manager skills by becoming more empathetic. I think that when we all hear this, we probably nod and think to ourselves that that would probably be a good thing to do – if only we knew how to go about doing it. However, it turns out that the real answer here is a bit more complex. Not everyone believes that empathy and leadership go hand-in-hand. What does a manager really need to do here?

What Is Empathy?

What managers need to understand is that empathy has arrived in a big way, and it’s time for us to deal with it. The prevailing view is that empathy is probably a good thing for humans to possess: it’s a positive and unifying social force for good. What managers need to be aware of is that the people who study it are increasingly less convinced. Where managers really get involved is when we start to take a look at the relationship between empathy and leadership.

Recent studies have linked highly empathetic leaders to popularity and the ability to build better working relationships. However, other data suggests they can be indecisive and ineffectual in making tough decisions. A recent survey found that 20% of companies have added empathy training to their management development programs. One of the biggest problems is that 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.

One thing that managers need to understand about empathy is that experts say that stepping out of yourself and exploring other perspectives can make managers vulnerable to burnout. Another challenge, in times of crisis, is that managers also need to display strength. If you’ve positioned yourself as an empathetic manager, it’s a lot more difficult to make unpopular decisions, even if they’re objectively the right ones.

The Challenge Of Becoming More Empathetic

The biggest obstacle may be this: surveys have found that managers are actually becoming less empathetic. When we do extend empathy to strangers, we’re more inclined to do so if they look like us, think like us, follow us on Twitter, or support the same football team that we do. Some researchers believe empathy isn’t necessarily what unites us, it’s what makes us bond to one warring tribe or the other.

One study looked at the managers at companies that had gone through a crisis, and what role empathy played in the outcome. The authors concluded that a manager’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 managers were generally more attuned to the concerns of their teams and better at collecting the information they needed to diagnose the problem. They were better at comforting team members, avoiding blame and repairing the team’s ability to work together by using team building techniques.

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

What All Of This Means For You

Managers are facing tough times. On one hand the manger training that we have been going to has been telling us that we need to become more empathetic. However, recent research seems to be pointing us in a different direction. Our goal is to be the best manager that we can be to our team. What we really need to do is to understand exactly what this empathy thing is and just how much of it we really need to have.

Traditionally managers have viewed empathy as being a good thing to have. However, what we really need to do is to take a look at the link between empathy and leadership. Empathy does make managers good leaders and allows us to build better working relationships. However, we may have problems making the tough decisions. We need to be careful because being empathetic can lead to burnout. Right now it seems as though managers are becoming less empathetic. If a company has a crisis, an empathetic manager can be more attuned to what their team is feeling. However, they may be unable to make the tough decisions that are required.

As a manager, we want to be able to understand what the members of our team are feeling. Being empathetic is one way that we can be able to do this. However, we also have to be able to make the hard decisions when it comes time to do so. We need to make sure that our empathy is not something that stands in the way of our doing what needs to be done.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Management Skills™

Question For You: How do you think that you could determine if you are empathetic?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

So let’s face facts, the Covid-19 pandemic changed just about everything. How managers can use their manager skills to go about finding their next job was one of the things that has changed. Sure, we used to all know what we had to do when we went looking for our next opportunity. However, when the world got turned upside down during the pandemic, it turns out that a lot of companies used this as an opportunity to change how they go about hiring. This means that managers need to understand how the game is now being played even without any manager training on how to do that.