It’s time to be more empathetic…about empathy. Playing outdoors as a kid I would pretend I had incredible speed like The Flash or the strength and flying ability of Superman. As an adult I have shifted my pursuit to more realistic skills; I have long revered empathy and consider it a super-trait. It’s not a stretch to say that empathy has magical powers, and the research supports this. John Medina extolled the virtues of empathy in Brain Rules for Baby when he explained “research shows that 70% of marital conflicts are not resolvable…if there is wiggle room for negotiation only 30% of the time, empathy becomes the premier exercise in any couple’s conflict-management workout. That’s why it’s absence is such a powerful predictor of divorce.” Dr. John Gottman has said “Empathy not only matters, it is the foundation of effective parenting.”
The power and benefits of empathy are clear when it comes to relationships and interpersonal skills. It is critical. As in, if you had to spend the rest of your life on an island alone and you could only choose one interpersonal skill to take with you, empathy is the one you would want. You’re in a tough spot here (empathy) as opposed to I really appreciate your attention to detail, but getting shipwrecked on an island is unlike you so I wanted to point it out (constructive criticism). Thanks, Captain Obvious.
Empathy & Leadership
While empathy has been an important leadership skill for decades, it is experiencing a resurgence in business. Organizations, employees, managers, and leaders are begging for “more human” leaders. They are asking for compassion, care, and empathy in the workplace. They are asking for those that lead them to lead with heart. To support them as a whole person. To move closer to our humanity. To lead with empathy. This is a good thing. What the world needs now is more empathy.
Empathy Burnout…Yes, That’s a Thing.
But we also need to acknowledge that empathy…is hard. Empathy takes energy and commitment. It is not always easy for everyone to provide, and while it absolutely can be learned, not everyone had the opportunity to learn empathy from their family of origin. Some already use the term “empathy burnout,” perhaps similar to compassion fatigue. Mental Health America explains “Empathy burnout is common when individuals spend so much of their emotional strength relating deeply to the problems and stress of others that they forget to care for themselves.”1 Some of the best leaders I’ve observed have burned themselves out by caring too much.
So, for all the empathetic leaders out there leading with compassion, caring, and heart—we see you. It can be so difficult to bring such emotional and humane energy to your teams every single day, especially when you are balancing the needs of your own life. We appreciate your commitment to uplifting and understanding those around you. We appreciate your willingness to bring your vulnerability to the workplace. And as a result, we are going to give our best right back to you in return.