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The Empathy Problem: Mistaking a Rare Talent for a Business Necessity
Workplace

The Empathy Problem: Mistaking a Rare Talent for a Business Necessity

by Todd M. Johnson
The Empathy Problem: Mistaking a Rare Talent for a Business Necessity

Story Highlights

  • Calls for empathy in leadership are trendy and ill-informed
  • Trying to develop empathy where there is none can be dispiriting, exhausting and unsustainable
  • Leaders: Work to understand and care for your employees by using the talents you already have

Empathy is not a feeling. It's a talent.

We're all born with certain innate strengths -- 34 of them, according to CliftonStrengths research, and one of them is called Empathy.

People with intense Empathy talents have an instinctive sense of the emotions of others. They hear the unvoiced questions and can somehow find the right words to help other people express their feelings alone as well as with others. They don't learn this ability, because it can't be taught. It's innate, a function of neurological wiring.

And it's uncommon. Only 18% of people who've completed the CliftonStrengths assessment have Empathy in their top five. Which means most of us don't respond with Empathy immediately, spontaneously and consistently.

Yet, most of us are told we have to be empathetic if we want to be good leaders -- talk of empathy is everywhere in today's workplace and management articles. Seldom a day goes by that we don't read that empathy is the most important trait or attribute a leader can possess to elevate and lead effective teams.

Most of us don't respond with empathy immediately, spontaneously and consistently.

Consider research professor at the University of Houston, Dr. Brené Brown. "Empathy fuels connection," she says, "Sympathy drives disconnection." Her recent Netflix special is designed to delve even deeper into the vital importance of empathy. Or take Simon Sinek, "leadership guru," as he's called, author and former Columbia University professor, who has told millions, "Empathy is the most important instrument in a leader's toolbox."

Which is likely why so many of our bosses, coaches and mentors implore us to be more empathetic with our colleagues and direct reports. They hope to make us more likable or to help us stay current with organization thought leaders. Maybe they themselves are empathetic and want others to achieve a similar level of success and emotional fulfillment.

Those bosses mean well. They're trying to develop better leaders of people. And empathy is powerful. It is important. It makes people feel understood and cared for. Leaders with strong Empathy talents tend to be very likable and their followers can be immensely loyal. An empathetic leader makes people feel cared for -- and feeling cared for is powerfully motivating. At work, empathy can generate extraordinary performance. At home empathy can produce profound relationships.

But those bosses are wrong about empathy. In fact, the concept of empathy is grossly misunderstood by nearly everyone, including some brilliant, charismatic thinkers and leadership practitioners.

Business needs a better, more accurate conceptualization of empathy -- right now -- because the emphasis on empathy as the sole means of effective leadership can hurt people and organizations.

You Can't Lead With a Strength You Don't Have

For every person with Empathy in their top five, there are four people who have other abilities at the top of their talent portfolio. So, hearing that empathy is necessary for success can leave leaders feeling frustrated, confused and uncertain of their value to the company. It can cause them to question their career choices or create artificial (or real) ceilings for what they can accomplish. It can make them feel like frauds, always concerned that they'll be found out or, worse yet, stereotyped as an "uncaring" leader focused solely on the P&L sheet and not on the people.

Business needs a better, more accurate conceptualization of empathy -- right now -- because the emphasis on empathy as the sole means of effective leadership can hurt people and organizations.

The reality is, leaders with little natural empathy may spend their whole careers committed to making work as engaging and successful as possible for their teams and partners. Many of these leaders believe their employees' wellbeing is one of their core responsibilities. But they just can't effortlessly feel the feelings of others.

Gallup strengths coaches have seen them try. Time and time again, they do what they think they ought to do to be a good leader -- based on the well-intended, but fallacious advice from social media influencers or their own bosses -- even at the expense of their own wellbeing and career prospects. "Fake it 'til you make it," seems to be the operating principle. As though a genuine human strength can be faked.

Maintaining the persona of empathy is dispiriting, exhausting and unsustainable under stress. And when that artifice cracks and their leader can no longer fake empathy, people wonder which version of their leader is real and which is artificial. Were they ever genuinely cared for? Or were they duped? That destroys trust in their leader and in her vision for the future.

And it's such a useless waste of time and potential.

Let Your Strengths Guide the Way You Lead

For leaders, possessing self-awareness is more important than possessing any specific strength. A leader who invests time and concern in a direct report demonstrates tremendous care. To an employee, how a leader arrives at an understanding doesn't matter -- only that the leader wants to understand.

For instance:

There are plenty of strengths that can make people feel cared for just as well as Empathy does -- even if managers go about it in different ways. And reaching the same outcome through using different strengths may be an advantage in some ways.

That's why we need to be very careful about the way we use the word "empathy." There are real consequences to throwing the concept around. When influencers use empathy without explanation or qualification, they impact the attitudes and behaviors of leaders who struggle to work at empathizing and who may never be very good at it. The fact is, these leaders are already perfectly capable of understanding and caring about their employees using the strengths they do possess.

If you ask Gallup scientists which CliftonStrengths are most common among successful leaders, you won't get the answer you hoped. Instead, you'll be told that the question is flawed. There is no single characteristic, or even set of characteristics, that leaders have to possess to be effective. Successful leaders are those who know how to use what they've got. That is why they're effective.

Suggesting that all good leaders must empathize dismisses those other strengths. And it discounts those other leaders.

Outcomes Are Important, How You Reach Them Is Not

As bad as that feels on the individual level, it's also a lousy way to run a company. Leaders who neglect (or are ashamed of) their strengths don't develop them, and so they fail to capitalize on them. Leaders who pretend to be someone they aren't can become ineffectual managers of distrustful and disengaged teams.

Our strengths are the path of least resistance to excellence. By neglecting them, we ignore our potential for greatness. This is why it's worth making the effort to conceptualize empathy correctly.

That's a real loss to business. A Gallup study of 1.2 million employees across 22 organizations in seven industries and 45 countries showed that when workers are taught to use their strengths, 90% of their workgroups had performance increases at or above the following ranges:

  • 10% to 19% increased sales
  • 14% to 29% increased profit
  • 9% to 15% increase in engaged employees

Clearly, strengths have an impact. Our strengths are the path of least resistance to excellence. By neglecting them, we ignore our potential for greatness. This is why it's worth making the effort to conceptualize empathy correctly.

Small 'e' empathy is very powerful. Capital 'E' Empathy is, too. All strengths are, if they're practiced and developed with awareness and deliberation. Even people who do have Empathy in their top five can improve on it with practice. The important thing about empathy -- or Empathy -- is the outcome of its application. And there are many, many ways to get those same results.

But different strengths use different methods. Everyone can make others feel cared for, in their own way, and be very successful. But telling leaders that their performance depends on feeling what others feel doesn't help them -- and it can do real damage to leaders and their teams.

Learn more about CliftonStrengths, the employee experience and how we can help you with your strategy:

Todd M. Johnson is a Manager at Gallup.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.


Gallup https://www.gallup.com/workplace/258041/empathy-problem-mistaking-rare-talent-business-necessity.aspx
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