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EMPATHY SERIES |Part 2: Empathy is an impreciSe word

In Part One of this blog series, we established that empathy is clearly associated with more effective leadership, and that to be seen as a good leader you must be able to emotionally connect to others. However, a problem exists with empathy. It is an imprecisely understood word, which means that each of us can make quite different meaning of it. I have found this can limit some people’s willingness to understand what empathy truly is, develop it, or even use it in their leadership.

For example, I worked with a general manager of an infrastructure construction business who wished to develop his leadership skills. When I mentioned the word ‘empathy’, he literally turned up his nose and leaned back uneasily in his chair, crossing his arms in the process. When I enquired about what he thought empathy was he said, ‘It’s about hugging people when they’re sad, crying with them too.’ And when I asked him what he thought about that he said, ‘What do you mean? I’m not here to counsel people, blow their noses, or give ’em therapy! My job’s to get these blokes to move dirt!’ In his mind, empathy meant the same as psychotherapy, or having an intimate connection to his team that would require from a deep emotional investment that he was unprepared to make. No wonder he didn’t like the sound of it.

What is empathy then?

Empathy concerns your relationship with, and responsiveness to, others’ emotions. In other words, it involves your connection to how they feel.

Empathy uses the suffix ‘-pathy’, which has Greek origins and means connection. Several other words ending in ‘-pathy’ describe various ways that we can connect with and relate to others’ emotions, some of which can be plotted on the warmth or emotional connected- ness continuum – as shown in the following figure:

If I were responding to your emotional state, we can use the connectedness continuum to describe a range of possible responses:

  • Apathy: This occurs when I ignore your emotional expressions, or make no attempt to understand them. This may be intentional, because emotions make me feel uncomfortable and I don’t know what to do with them, or I may in the small percentage of people who simply do not possess the ability to recognise others’ emotional states – which can be the case with individuals on the autism spectrum, for example.

  • Antipathy: Here, I recognise your emotional state but attempt to invalidate it by arguing with the legitimacy of how you are feeling – for example, saying you have no right to feel disappointed by something. In other words, I am in opposition to your emotional experience.

  • Cognitive empathy: This is when I intellectually understand the emotions you are experiencing and what is causing them, even though I may feel nothing in response – for example, I could say, ‘I understand the restructure is causing you to feel anxious.’ This requires a functioning Theory of Mind Mechanism (ToMM) which is a capability that most people develop in childhood that allows them to predict what other people are thinking and feeling.

  • Affective empathy: At this point on the continuum I understand the emotions you are feeling, experience discomfort or distress at your experience, and I want to help you, even rescue you. This is also sometimes called sympathy. A psychological mechanism involved here is what’s been dubbed ‘The Empathising SyStem’, or TESS3 for short, a capacity that starts developing in humans between the ages of one and two years of age. Affective empathy requires both ToMM (recognising emotional states in others) and TESS (feeling something in response). Notably, psychopaths have a functioning ToMM and can accurately recognise the emotions others are experiencing, but do not possess a functioning TESS, and therefore feel no disturbance or distress in response. This is part of the reason they can be so effective in manipulating others emotionally.

  • Syncopathy: Sometimes called ‘emotional contagion’4 or ‘herding empathy’, this iis where I automatically and simultaneously experience the same emotional state you are transmitting. This instantaneous synchronisation of emotion is a herding survival response, ensuring that emotions resulting from imminent dangers are quickly transmitted through the group, inciting an immediate reaction – similar to a flock of birds or a school of fish reflexively wheeling away from a predator. It is the most primitive and compulsive version of emotional connection and was implicated in the panic-buying of toilet paper around the world as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged – a good example of others ‘catching’ panic from others, even though no rational reason existed for stocking up on toilet paper.

Too little or too much empathy

The challenge for a leader is to have an appropriate relationship to others’ emotions. Apathy and antipathy are disconnections from others’ emotions, and signal intentions that are ‘me’ focused rather than ‘other’ focused, leading to distrust and decreased engagement from others.

Syncopathy and some manifestations of affective empathy create the opposite problem. The leader can become too emotionally connected or ‘fused’, resulting in the leader being unable or unwilling to take independent and objective action. This is problematic because often in leadership you need to ask others to do things that make them uncomfortable. If you are uncomfortable with their discomfort, you may back-pedal on your expectations and fail to hold them accountable. What’s more, being too emotionally connected to others can produce a condition called ‘unmitigated empathy’, where no boundary or limit exists for how connected you are to others. This can leave a leader feeling overburdened and potentially burned out as a result of carrying the emotional weight of everyone else’s negative feelings, and feeling responsible to rescue them from their distress.

The amount of empathy you need is similar to what Goldilocks is looking for in the famous fairytale. You don’t want to have too little or too much of a connection – you want just the right amount.

In the next article I’ll take a closer look at how much is the right amount of emotional connection, and why getting the right balance between empathy and being tough is so critical for effective leadership.

3 Baron-Cohen, S & Chakrabarti, B (2008), ‘The biology of mind reading’ in Ambady, N and Skowronski, J (eds.), First Impressions, Guilford Publications.

4 Hatfield, E, Cacioppo, J & Rapson, R (1992), ‘Primitive emotional contagion’, in Clark, M (ed), Review of Personality and Social Psychology: Emotion and Behavior, SAGE Publications.


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