Empathy: Leadership Strength Or Weakness?

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Last week, Arlington Economic Development’s Business Investment Group sponsored Empathy in Business, a panel discussion with Ángel Cabrera, President of George Mason University, Bill Drayton, CEO of Ashoka Innovators for the Public, Carly Fiorina, CEO of Carly Fiorina Enterprises (and former CEO of HP), and Julie Rogers, President and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. Jonathan Aberman, Managing Director and Chairman of Amplifier Ventures, moderated the discussion.

If you can find the discipline and energy to listen, you may learn why things failed and then make better decisions. — Ángel Cabrera

It appears as if there are two camps when it comes to empathy as it relates to leadership: 1) those who think it’s a “squishy” emotion that makes a leader weak; or 2) those who think it’s a quality required to lead people effectively. For the record, each of the panelists fell into the strengths camp. Whichever perspective you have, there’s another squishy element to empathy in business—our ability to define it. And that’s a critical element to understanding how this particular quality fits in the business world.

Like many other common words, people define empathy through personal filters, which gives the term a vastly different interpretation depending upon experience. As a result, we wind up talking about different concepts even when discussing seemingly simple ideas.

Case and point: Jonathan Aberman wrote a piece earlier this week. His take: “[Empathy] is not a value; it is a tool, like reading, writing or computer literacy.” He goes on to talk about the relationship between empathy and morality and the role they play in economics and politics.

This is where it gets squishy.

As a long-time fan of Daniel Goleman, co-director of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations at Rutgers University and author of Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, I had a completely different take away from Thursday’s event. In my mind, empathy is not a tool. Empathy is an element of emotional intelligence.

Empathy’s Role in Emotional Intelligence

Research shows people can experience and exhibit three kinds of empathy:

1.  Cognitive
2.  Emotional
3.  Compassionate

Cognitive empathy involves the ability to sense how other people feel and what they might be thinking. This ability plays an integral role in effective leadership because it helps you understand motivation from other people’s perspectives. Great leaders rely on cognitive empathy to build high performing organizations. But… they need more

To respond appropriately to crises, the person at the helm of an organization also needs to exhibit emotional empathy. Our brains are wired to respond to the emotions of others on a very personal level. Connecting emotionally draws people in and creates trust.

Compassionate empathy causes people to reach out and help those around them—an element of problem solving if you will.

Despite the degree of empathy you personally feel and demonstrate, all healthy people experience it. So, the question is, how well do you incorporate empathy in your leadership style?

Empathy’s Role As A Strength

As noted above, one reason people feel uncomfortable with empathy as a leadership characteristic is because they think it signifies weakness. And yet, the Gallup Organization classifies empathy as one of 34 strengths. Much in line with Goleman’s findings, Gallup looks at empathy as a way to tap into the emotions of others.

Having empathy doesn’t mean you’re a pushover.

According to Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, having empathy doesn’t mean you “. . . share their perspective. You do not necessarily feel pity for each person’s predicament—that would be sympathy, not Empathy. You do not necessarily condone the choices each person makes, but you do understand.”

Rath studies the role of human behavior in health, business, and economics. His research provides a foundation for understanding team and organizational dynamics. Understanding others lies at the heart of creating a safe environment for people to play to their strengths and perform at their best.

Corporate America is particularly ineffective in strengths-based leadership and hiring practices. That’s why Gallup consistently finds that approximately 70% of people disengage or actively disengage from their jobs. And we wonder why we’re not competitive in a global marketplace.

Simply having empathy is not enough. How you interact with people and deliver your message is as important as the quality itself.

Best Sound Bites

Thank you to Economic Development’s Business Investment Group, Ángel Cabrera, Bill Drayton, Carly Fiorina, Julie Rogers, and Jonathan Aberman for an enlightening evening. If you’re interested, you can find the Twitter stream from Thursday’s event at #EmpathyInBiz. In the interim, here are some of my favorite sound bites:

“What if we didn’t try to be the best university in the world but the best university FOR the world?”
— Ángel Cabrera

“We need to understand that the quality of our lives is directly related to the quality of other people’s lives.”
— Carly Fiorina

“2/3 of people’s motivation is wanting to help. Why do we focus on the 1/3?”
— Bill Drayton

“We don’t reward empathy in the games we create.”
— Julie Rogers

What ideas about empathy have changed your worldview? Please share below.

Note: Article concurrently published in Modern DC Business. Photo courtesy of Natural Artistry Photography.

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