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7 Big Myths about Empathy in the Workplace

The global pandemic has proved to be a time of significant upheaval in workplace relations. Two things are apparent:

1/ Empathy has emerged from studies (here, here, here) as the number one desired trait of effective people managers.

2/ Many of your most valuable team members are rethinking their commitment right now.  The risk of attrition is high – especially where an organisation has a low empathy culture.

And yet, there are still leaders around who say “I don’t do empathy”, “why do we need empathy?” or “we won’t get the growth we need if we’re too soft on people”.

Empathy is a multi-faceted, uniquely human capacity.  The skillset of empathy encompasses perspective taking, releasing judgement, listening without intervention, acknowledging what is said and responding appropriately.   This set of communication skills have rarely, if ever, been effectively taught, and none are easy to master without specific training.  

However, myths abound about the imagined risk of humanising working conditions for employees. Let’s explore some of the common ones in more detail, and offer some other perspectives.

MYTH 1: Empathy is called a soft skill, when it is in fact hard

In management speak, empathy is generally called a “soft” skill – also known as a “people” or “communication” skill. Some even consider it “feminine”. Viewing these abilities as “soft” diminishes their importance and implies they’re somehow less valuable than technical skills.  

In fact, reports show personal interactions requiring finesse and empathy are the biggest challenges most managers face.  Interestingly, being an empathetic manager is also the trait most predictive of career success and advancement.

Brene Brown refers to a study showing around 60% of a manager’s time is spent dealing with issues that require careful consideration and a delicate touch, such as:

  • supporting team members emotionally when personal circumstances are difficult  
  • conducting challenging conversations where accountability or change is required or where conflict is present
  • building a team culture based on trust and respect when external circumstances are changing and eroding certainty and stability.

These types of interactions are in fact the hardest part of a people manager’s role.  Even with experience, these interactions are challenging, especially when you’re under pressure or there are personality differences complicating the relationships. As Brown says, the reason these conversations create anxiety for people managers is because they want to get it right and support their people.

The conversations need to be had, they can’t be avoided. However, due to undertraining and little opportunity to practice with low stakes, most managers end up relying on their native empathy to address all kinds of challenging workplace issues, with many feeling unsupported and underprepared. These are learnable skills and incredibly valuable to people managers who can then reframe difficult interactions into rewarding ones.

There are also leaders who believe endorsing the so-called “touchy feely” skills will feminise the workplace or create a lack of “toughness” in a culture.  

At Elevate Empathy we believe workplace cultures that diminish the importance of caring traits serve no one, and are extremely damaging, particularly to men.   Human qualities are not gendered. What is gendered is permission to express certain traits. 

Many males are programmed to suppress emotion for fear of appearing weak. Perpetuating the myth that showing emotions is weak makes it hard for men to engage with emotion in a healthy way, and we see the results of this poor regulation all around us. Men are severely short changed by this conditioning. For both males and females, emotional management is a life skill that pays off in every single area of life, in self-awareness and in relationships – it is worth a bit of discomfort.

Challenging conversations require a considered approach and practice.  Empathy is the core skill required to manage such situations. If it’s the hardest part of your job, why refer to it as a “soft” skill?

MYTH 2:  Empathy is a character attribute, you either have it or you don’t – it can’t be improved

There is confusion about this, because empathy can be both a trait and a state:

A trait is considered to be something that is part of an individual’s personality – a long-term characteristic that shows up in their behaviour and actions.  It’s a feature or quality of that individual. For example someone who says “I’m a confident person”  is stating that confidence is part of their identity

“A state is a temporary condition experienced for a period of time.  After the state has passed they will return to another condition.  For example someone who says,  “I’m feeling confident I did well in the exam”, is describing a state. State empathy can be deployed as required.  (Definitions from The Oxford Review Encyclopaedia of Terms)

Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s research suggests our trait empathy is influenced by BOTH biological factors (predominantly brain structure and chemistry) AND sociological factors, such as socio economic, gender, parental modelling, life experiences, culture and ingroups.  

Most young children have naturally high levels of empathy.  However, by the time we reach adulthood many of us have a somewhat reduced capacity.  This is generally due to conditioning, constraints, groupism and the way our minds work, and sometimes by choice.  

Emotional empathy enables us to share emotion and some people have experienced it as a burden.  They may have learned to shield themselves from absorbing emotion by dialling down their empathy or being very selective about who receives it.  Most of us are unaware our natural empathy has been blunted over time.

Psychologists assumed trait empathy was fixed for many decades.  The first to challenge the prevailing view was nursing scholar, Theresa Wiseman. Around 25 years ago she undertook a meta analysis (a study of all the relevant studies) on empathy research.  Wiseman identified that as well as being a trait, empathy could additionally be understood as a suite of skills or habits to be deployed appropriately.   So state empathy can be improved in (nearly) everyone.

Even though empathy is a unique and beneficial human resource, few of us ever learned to harness it to benefit ourselves and others.  Wiseman’s insights have been validated in numerous studies and dedicated work by a number of leading professors including Helen Reiss (with physicians) and Jamil Zaki.  Both have shown that whilst our innate empathy has some degree of set point, our capacity for empathy can be expanded when the skills are broken down and taught through the right practices. Zaki says “empathy is something like a muscle: left unused, it atrophies, put to work, it grows”.

Today, virtually all emotion researchers agree: With intention, you can improve your set level of empathy and learn to manage it effectively, especially when empathetic behaviour is the expected norm or cued by other actions within a state.

In the Elevate Empathy workshops we begin by bringing awareness to factors which blunt our empathy –- we “call out the game” –- by shining a spotlight on the neurobiological and sociological factors at play. 

Then we distill the skills of empathy to learn and practice the behaviours.  And, we teach people to manage their natural empathy better, so it doesn’t drain their energy.  We look to embed new behaviours into the culture to raise collective empathy, so the burden comes off individuals and is managed via group norms.

MYTH 3: You Have to choose between being an empathetic leader and a high performance leader

Related to the perception that so called “soft” skills are weak, a similar myth we hear is the idea that in business you can’t be “too kind” or:

a) People will think you’re not very smart
b) People will think you’re not driven or achievement oriented.
c) People will try and take advantage of your perceived “softness”.

It’s based on a core misunderstanding; that being an empathetic manager is about constantly providing reassurance and trying to keep everyone happy.   

Being “super nice” is not what employees believe empathy is. In a recent EY study, the top five qualities employees look for in an empathetic senior leader are: 

  • open and transparent, doesn’t hide things
  • fair (gives you a fair hearing)
  • follows through on action 
  • encourages others to share their opinions 
  • trusted to handle difficult conversations.

Being empathetic means a people manager will invest time into understanding the specific strengths and needs of their team members. Also, that they treat everyone – regardless of their status in the organisation or personal relationship with them – fairly, openly, respectfully and consistently.

Whilst there’s evidence that our goal-directed brain circuit in it’s full power can override our people (empathy) circuit, great leaders learn how to balance their drive to achieve with awareness of the needs of their people. Leaders can’t reach lofty goals without understanding and motivating their people – the need for empathy walks right alongside a strong sense of mission.

Empathetic people are present, curious and generous. They pay close attention to others. Their traits are hallmarks of the smartest people amongst us. 

Empathetic leaders know that we all despise being treated like children. When hard decisions are necessary, we want to understand the context and the perspectives in play. What we hate is to be blindsided or kept in the dark. We all want to be treated with dignity and valued as human beings who put their heart and soul into their work.

MYTH 4: Empathising Implies Approval

Some detractors conflate making the time to gain a deeper understanding of someone’s decisions with endorsing their actions. Just because you can view someone’s actions from within their perspective and context, or learn someone’s back story, doesn’t mean you let people “off the hook”.   

Empathetic managers learn to walk the line between caring personally and facing up to challenges. Empathy is not about letting people get away scott free if they don’t pull their weight or being manipulated into accepting bogus excuses.  

Empathetic managers consider the collective, they know it is an unfair burden to others in the team to let poor performance slide.

Whilst many naturally empathetic people need to dig deep to face a hard conversation, dig deep they do, because to build a healthy culture we must confront issues.

In order to grow, people must sometimes experience negative consequences and shouldn’t be protected from them. 

Kindness must never be confused with weakness. Brene Brown teaches that “clear is kind” – it can be an act of care to hold people accountable for their actions.   Supportive managers are clear with people about their shortcomings and let them find a way to step it up.

Most people thrive with considered feedback. The type of managers who don’t serve us are those who withhold feedback, hoping we’ll just “get it” or worse, offer a harsh assessment at a late stage in the game. This can occur when a manager didn’t address something with us sooner, and allowed a situation to fester and become urgent.

Boundaries are also critical to manage empathy.  Brene Brown’s research yielded a finding that initially surprised her: the most  empathetic people were also the clearest on their boundaries.

Some of us think being caring means it’s our responsibility to fix those who are not doing well. Some of us take on pain and problems that are not ours to take.

To avoid this, consistent and respectful boundaries are key. Boundaries stop you doing things for others that they must do themselves, and prevent you shielding people from the consequences of their choices or behaviour. It’s important for effective people managers to have the self-awareness to set clear boundaries.

You can be empathetic and discerning about people. You can be understanding and give robust feedback. You also don’t have to be best buddies with everyone -– empathy only asks that you treat people justly and consistently.

You can be clear and decisive and not tough. Empathy pairs beautifully with resilience, because it also means facing up to hard conversations and asking people to dig deep to stare down a challenge.  

If you are naturally caring and protective, a people pleaser or a conflict avoider you will find empathy training helpful because you learn that shielding people doesn’t serve them and the best way to be kind is to be clear. 

MYTH 5: Empathy training is “woke” and fashionable

It is certainly true in the post-pandemic world that empathy has been recognised as a critical skill for leaders, and is being seen as a differentiator in the political sphere as well, so in this respect it has been “rediscovered”, which can make it seem like a fad.    

However, ideas tend to rise at their natural time, and ideas like embedding empathy into the collective experience is challenging to the hard driving “growth at all costs” business ethic that has prevailed over the past 40 years.

Frankly, many who think this way would prefer not to deal with flawed, emotional humans at all.  And yet – at least for now – they must. So why not harness these unique human traits to create stronger organisations?

So-called “woke” policies are generally regarded as socially progressive, embracing social justice issues, equity and inclusion, an open evaluation of history, and a reimagining of systems which strongly support the status quo at the expense of fairness. All of these are brought to life when informed with perspective, understanding and insight.

However, “wokeism” can also be dogmatic and doesn’t always leave space for our first guiding principle; “when you know better, do better”.  It is inevitable that mistakes will be made as we learn, and people must be allowed some headroom for curiosity and growth without fear of judgement or reprisal.

Empathy skills, particularly listening, non judgement and acknowledgement are critical for respecting the viewpoints of others, there can be no conversation without respect. 

To make progress, you have to ask people to change. Unfortunately, our brain wiring means we often react to new ideas or people with fear.  This attribute can be manipulated by people who tell us our way of life or values are under threat.  

The only way most people can change their minds or embrace new ideas is being met with understanding and acknowledgement.

Once people feel judged, empathy is breached and is extremely hard to rebuild.  We have learned to be wary of fixed positions and strong beliefs, as there are always other perspectives to consider and acknowledge in this human experience.

At Elevate Empathy, we don’t think showing empathy and understanding is either political or “woke” – being inclusive is for the brave and strong.  We must all be allowed to fail and learn as we push on our growing edge.

MYTH 6: Empathy is a time suck

The pressure on leaders today is undeniably intense, with demands coming thick and fast from every direction.  

In the midst of having to deliver so much, for so many, some managers get frustrated dealing with so called “people issues”.  They wish they could wave a wand, “fix” their people and have everyone working productively, all the time.

The truth is, embracing leadership means quite a lot of time-consuming, messy, human stuff will come your way. And to be an effective manager, you have to make time to deal with it properly, the first time.

Empathetic conversations take just a little more time than most interactions because you must give people your full attention, so they will rarely be held “on the fly”. 

Full attention and time to talk is needed, but many researchers note this kind of conversation is an INVESTMENT with a potentially big pay off.  

Empathy sounds like

“I hear you, it’s a hard situation”
“Tell me more about this unreasonable client”
“How can I support you in this?”
“Can I remove some barriers to help you achieve what you need to achieve?”
“What are some of the options we have now?”

It does take a little bit of time, and what happens is, when you spend a little bit of time empathising you get back a lot of time later because you really have understood the situation and the challenges. You build trust and people work more effectively.

Source: Joshua Friedman, 6seconds.org

Being known as an empathetic manager promotes trust and safety. People feel secure to raise issues in early stages, allowing for early intervention and heading off escalations before they occur – thereby helping people grow in their roles and saving time, money and considerable stress.

It is avoiding conversations and allowing situations to become critical, which is poor use of a manager’s time.

MYTH 7: I might say the wrong thing and upset someone

Empathetic conversations are not therapy. No one expects you to have the skills of a trained counselor. Most people worry about saying the wrong thing and making a situation worse –- but an empathetic conversation is first and foremost about listening calmly, without intervention, and validating the feelings of the other person. Though we think we need to find the perfect thing to say to “make it better”, empathetic listening means we often have to do less, rather than more.   

Elevate Empathy is so inspired by the courage and wisdom of 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, who encourages people not to shy away from difficult conversations because of their own discomfort.

Empathy is also not about solving problems or providing advice (that’s consulting). Empathy partners well with accountability. As an empathetic manager your role is to reach a place of shared understanding and assist the other person find clarity. From a place of acceptance, most people spontaneously generate solutions for their issues and are motivated to change themselves.