The Limits of Empathy

Emotional Intelligence is such a universal and popular concept that it is difficult to believe that it only came to prominence twenty years ago in the then ground breaking book by Daniel Goleman. Put simply, emotional intelligence is the capacity of individuals to recognise their own and others’ emotions.  In the workplace, people are educated and encouraged to discriminate between different feelings, label them appropriately and then use this information to guide their own thinking, behaviour and actions.

Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at the University of Cambridge defines empathy as:

“our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion.”

All the management gurus agree that empathy is essential for effective leadership, as well as effective change management, new product development, customer service and any other aspect of business that involves people.  It is a key element of emotional intelligence and is championed as a critical leadership capability – helping you to influence others in your organisation, anticipate stakeholders’ concerns, respond to Twitterers and other social media followers, and even run better meetings.

However, this may all be a bit much.  Empathy is not a finite resource – for each of us as individuals it has limits.

  • Empathy is exhausting.  It depletes our mental resources and taxes us emotionally
  • Empathy can impair our performance.  We may focus too much on the fulfilment of others’ goals
  • Empathy can cause lapses in ethical judgement.  Loyalty and empathy towards fellow employees can inhibit ethical behaviour (e.g. Hillsborough, Enron, WorldCom, MPs’ expenses)

Writing earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review, Professor Adam Waytz suggested that people need to take steps to prevent the potential ill-effects of being empathetic at work and promoted the benefit of “empathy breaks” so that people can replenish their reserves.

For example, people can be asked to focus only on certain stakeholder groups, or meet others’ needs in a way that also addresses their own needs.

For a further conversation on this interesting topic, or to explore other challenges for leadership development in the workplace, please contact [email protected] or [email protected] or call us on 01306 621600.

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