Empathy is important, but it’s more than just listening

Kathy’s boss gave her his empathy and listened to her concerns about teamwork in their group and her request to change their meeting structure. He played back what she said, and she came away from the meeting satisfied he gave her a good hearing. But in her mind, he created an expectation he would respond to her concerns and address them. Weeks later, nothing had happened. 

Kathy followed up with him. Once more, he showed he understood and agreed with her feedback. He promised to take her recommendations to change their meeting process to the entire leadership team for their endorsement. Once again nothing happened. Her boss damaged his reputation by not responding to her request. Even though he had given her empathy, Kathy wanted action, not just words. 

We have all been frustrated by leaders who take action without listening. But it’s just as exasperating when they listen and don’t act when that is required. The evidence suggests employees rank empathetic leaders as most important for the current environment. Zenger Folkman research suggests that in balancing getting results with a concern for the individual needs of people, the balance needs to be 40% results, 60% individual needs. 

But it’s not just a matter of showing empathy by listening as Kathy’s boss did. It could also include providing help if that is what the person is seeking. Kathy’s boss and leaders in general could benefit from understanding the three components of empathy identified by Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman: Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate. 

Cognitive: “Simply knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called perspective-taking.”

Emotional: “When you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious.”

Compassionate: “With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.”

The challenge for leaders is knowing which kind of empathy is appropriate for the situation.

🙋 What is your experience of giving or receiving empathy? 🙋

Best regards, Brian