In our previous blog articles on the role of emotional connection in great leadership, we shared the research proving its importance, and we helped define more accurately what we mean by empathy by providing a continuum of emotional connection.
I signed off the last article stating that the amount of empathy you need to be able to muster is similar to what Goldilocks is looking for in the famous fairy tale. You don’t want to have too little or too much – you want just the right amount.
Many leaders struggle to find that Goldilocks zone. In our research – as reported in the book Xtraordinary: The Art and Science of Remarkable Leadership – we identified three ordinary patterns of leadership representing around 70% of leaders, which operate outside the Goldilocks zone.
The Control pattern pays little attention to others’ emotions, and when it does the response is just as likely to involve telling others why they are wrong to feel a particular way.
The Relate pattern pays too much attention to others’ emotions, usually at the expense of getting things done or holding people accountable for responding to their own challenges.
The Protect pattern shows little or no response to others’ emotional states, creating a perception of uncaring apathy or even disdain.
There is however, a more extraordinary pattern of leadership that operates within the Goldilocks zone. This Catalyst pattern is demonstrated by less than 30% of leaders. If you are a leader operating within this zone, you’re showing enough empathy to show others that they matter and that you care, at the same time as maintaining some objectivity about the causes of their emotional states.
As a Catalyst leader, you’re not so emotionally fused to others that you lose the ability to think objectively and act independently. At the same time, you can be capable of showing genuine compassion for others’ experiences – but you’re not always compelled to rescue them from the negative experience.
The Catalyst leader knows that sometimes people need to find their own way out of the mess, building competence and confidence in themselves in the process. A leader who always feels compelled to rescue others creates an overly dependent relationship, breeds power-lessness in others, and becomes over-burdened with the management of others’ emotions beyond what is reasonable and sustainable. Read more about Catalyst leadership here.
Empathy and Strength don't have to cancel each other out
Being strong and empathetic is a difficult but not impossible balancing act, as suggested by the quote I used in the first of this series of article:
One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
However, a tough reality must also be acknowledged - there is a significant risk for highly empathetic leaders that they give up strength and agency in their desire to alleviate the discomfort strong leadership actions inevitably create for others. Tough love is often required, and difficult trade-offs mean that leaders often need to do things that others do not like. If you are unable to maintain a fierce resolve to make difficult things happen, because you are held hostage by the need to soothe others’ discomfort and unease, your leadership will stray into the high-warmth, low-strength territory of the Relate leadership pattern.
While researching the sportspeople who become great leaders, journalist Tom Young found they embraced the genius of and when it came to showing empathy while maintaining drive and agency. "All the people I interviewed really care" he wrote. "They might be quite competitive, they can be tough and aggressive, but there is an undercurrent of compassion and empathy."
The two forms of empathy from the connectedness continuum that allow for warmth to manifest while also maintaining strength are cognitive and affective empathy.
The benefits of appropriate empathy
As a leader, your use of cognitive and affective empathy has several practical benefits:
It provides insights into others’ perspectives and helps answer key influencing questions you should be asking, such as ‘Are my team positively engaged or is emotional resistance present?’, ‘What’s holding this person back?’, ‘What challenges does this create for this individual?’ and ‘What concerns do I need to help this person address or overcome if I am to enlist their commitment?’.
Empathy also makes real two-way communication possible. Talking ‘at’ a person is not real communication – it is a monologue. Real conversation is sensitive to this listener at this time, and empathy is a powerful way of showing sensitivity to others.
The use of empathy builds trust and engagement with others. Empathy is a powerful manifestation of warmth and signals that your intentions towards others are positive. This builds their support for the leadership agenda that you are seeking to pursue.
Empathy also defuses blocking emotions. Your team being caught in negative emotional states can impede their ability to think logically and rationally. When you as their leader empathise with their emotions, they feel they have been heard and validated. Often you are then able to move beyond focusing on the emotional state to focus on solving the problem that caused the emotions. Without this defusing of the negative interfering emotions, you may be held back from ever solving the practical problems that created them.
The big question that remains is: 'Can you learn to be empathetic?'. Can you develop compassion and care? The answer is yes and in the final article in this series, I’ll outline some ways it can be done.
Young, T (2020), ‘The last word on leadership’, The Australian, 25 July.
Baron-Cohen, S & Chakrabarti, B (2008), op. cit.