The crying baby picture is brilliant, thank you very much. Distress + infant face = double whammy: I hijacked your attention and empathy circuits. Some (probably no one) might say I even evoked article-relevant mind control. But the important part is we now have empathy on our minds. Neurotastic! And whether you’ve received feedback that you’re emotionally illiterate or been told you care too much, all can benefit from thinking about empathy.
The capacity for empathy – the ability to understand and mirror others’ emotional states – is a leadership strength, whether we’re talking about formal leadership or the personal leadership we all assume in our day-to-day lives. Empathy is fundamental to emotional intelligence and influence, and it enhances how we work with and through others. Its value in leadership is reflected in the growing number of coaching and training programs that require empathy as an explicit or implicit component for success. From courageous leadership to conversational intelligence to crucial conversations and negotiation, empathy is there.
In fact, when looking at empathy, we realize it’s actually a superpower: its impact transcends beyond leadership outcomes to life outcomes more broadly. As a precursor to connection and compassion (i.e., empathic concern or the desire to address other’s suffering), empathy has the capacity to enhance our physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
So, to see increasing focus on enhancing empathy among leaders and managers is not surprising. And this focus will likely continue to increase as we collectively struggle with environments fraught with stress, fear, and information overload. (These are tricky and wicked: they get in the way of empathy in unsuspecting souls while also creating conditions where empathy is desperately needed.)
But what about us folks with oodles of empathy? Empathic leaders who know what you’re feeling before you’ve said a word? Who grab our leg in pain when you even mention Joe Theisman’s name? (Don’t Google the video. Just don’t.) One would suspect with such a super power, we’d be thriving. No work to do here, folks. Move along.
Is this true?
Yes and no. Sometimes. It depends.
Like many superpowers, empathy is powerful until it’s not. When we absorb others’ internal states, we’re gathering information. How we respond to and use this information matters. For example –
- Empathic concern followed by compassionate acts enhances our well-being. But developing empathic distress leads to chronic anxiety, exhaustion, sickness, and burnout.
- Using empathy to discern how you want to support another individual as they drive their outcomes is powerful. But empathy that turns into ownership (e.g., unhealthy boundaries, over-functioning, co-dependency) – where you take on another’s emotions, go into helper mode, or assume responsibility for another’s choices or outcomes – is not powerful.
- Using empathy to develop a shared perspective or energy for connection, conflict resolution, or co-creation fuels powerful outcomes. But using empathy for inauthentic impression management or social manipulation creates less powerful outcomes.
Bottom line: Those of us with high levels of empathy have work to do, too, so we can thrive. And the good news? A variety of strategies and tools for this work exist. For example:
- Enhancing understanding of empathy and the relationship among compassion, empathic distress, and well-being
- Developing healthy emotional or energetic boundaries
- Evidence-based approaches in emotional intelligence, control, and resilience
- Strategies for recognizing and shifting from empathic distress to empathic concern
- Approaches for grounding, regaining, or sustaining emotional energy
- Practices in mindfulness, self-awareness, and compassion (including self-compassion)
So, as we think about empathy and cultivating thriving leadership, we can consider ways of investing in enhancing empathy AND supporting the highly empathic so they can use their strengths powerfully…so they can be empowered with and by their superpowers to thrive.