Don’t Believe these Empathy Myths!
Empathy is a quality that is sorely lacking among many of today’s leaders, even though it is exactly what is needed within modern organizations. Some leaders have dismissed empathy altogether, continuing to subscribe to old-school leadership tactics and models like “command and control.” Other leaders, however, may be curious about empathy and how it can enhance their leadership, but are sometimes swayed by powerful, persistent myths.
These empathy myths are rooted in ways of thinking that just don’t work anymore. They are remnants of a time and place that hasn’t existed in decades. Increasingly, leaders who continue to subscribe to these myths find themselves at the helms of organizations that fail to keep up with the times. Their stubborn insistence on avoiding empathy as a key component of leadership puts them at odds with their employees. It creates discord and it keeps these leaders from connecting with their people in real, human ways. Engagement drops. Productivity decreases and people begin to look for better work elsewhere.
Are You Ready to Bust These Empathy Myths?
What type of leader do you want to be?
Will you ignore the power of empathy and rely on old-school management tactics from a bygone era?
Or do you want to embrace empathy as a crucial element of your leadership approach, allowing you to connect more deeply and meaningfully with the people who give life to your organization?
To me, empathy is essential for successful modern leadership. I have seen numerous leaders take the leap of faith into a more empathetic approach; every single time, it has yielded improvements in engagement, morale, productivity, employee satisfaction and even profitability. My own career took off in a big way, too, when I started to become more openly vulnerable and empathetic. Yes, it is a “soft skill,” but make no mistake: Empathy is responsible for solid-as-concrete results for those leaders who take it seriously.
Nevertheless, some unhelpful and untrue myths continue to persist regarding empathy. They may seem like the truth, but they are far from having any relevance in today’s world. Let’s take a look at a few of the more troubling empathy myths and break them apart one by one.
Myth #1 – Empathy Requires Superhuman Effort
Some leaders want to lead with more empathy, but they feel it will require an effort too large for them to bear in their busy lives.
The truth is that empathy does not require extra effort. In fact, avoiding empathy takes more time and energy than practicing it. Why? Empathy is a core aspect of human nature. It is the very thing that makes society possible. It comes naturally for humans, but our culture often tells us that we need to suppress it, or that it is too much of a hassle to engage in day-to-day interactions.
When you show empathy to others, one of the first things you will notice is just how easy it feels. It requires almost no effort at all once you recognize the unconscious actions you tend to take to avoid feeling it. Yes, you may have developed the instinct to push empathy to the back of your mind (and heart); but once you notice that instinctual feeling, you can start to let it go, allowing empathy to flow freely.
Myth #2 – Empathy Is Weakness
When did empathy begin to be equated with weakness? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the two ideas became conflated, but they could not be further apart in reality.
Empathy is a sign of tremendous strength. It comes naturally to us, but it is far from easy to practice. That’s because society, culture and old-school leadership advice have muddied the waters, convincing people that great pains should be taken to avoid looking “soft” or projecting anything but strength.
I don’t get it. Showing empathy to an employee who makes a mistake requires much more strength than being punitive in your approach. Empathy requires leaders to confront their feelings and have meaningful interactions with those who need guidance, which is the opposite of weakness.
Myth #3 – Empathy Is Inappropriate in the Workplace
Humans are emotional, empathetic creatures by nature. Therefore, discouraging emotions and empathy in the workplace is a recipe for disengagement and will produce low to average productivity.
Certainly, each organization has standards of propriety in terms of how people should conduct themselves. Work must get done at the end of the day, so it makes sense that organizations should focus on productivity over feelings, to a degree. But to deny human aspects like emotion and empathy is not realistic.
Empathy is not only appropriate in the workplace; it is necessary.
Myth #4 – Having Empathy for Someone Means Agreeing with Them 100%
There is a popular misconception that empathy means that you agree with the other person’s feelings, ideas and perceptions. This may not be the case at all. You can use empathy to understand what the other person might be feeling while disagreeing with them at the same time. Empathy does not require you to change your values, beliefs or preferred approaches to doing business. Rather, it requires you to understand that other people have different ideas about such things – and that’s okay.
When you can understand another person, you can begin to understand the reasons for their choices and actions. Then, you can use your leadership skills to inspire them to work differently. Without empathy, I just don’t see how this is possible.
Remember: It’s not about agreement; it’s about understanding.
Myth #5 – Empathy Clouds Leaders’ Judgment
Some might argue that empathy keeps leaders from being decisive. Leaders fear that becoming too empathetic might cloud their judgment and their ability to make sound decisions. They worry that they will spend too much time listening to and considering the voices of others, making them seem wishy-washy or unable to provide direction.
Here’s the truth – a lack of empathy is what clouds judgment. When leaders fail to consider the views, opinions and ideas of others, they make uninformed decisions that can lead to organizational chaos or failure.
But when leaders use empathy alongside their decisiveness and vision, they can make decisions that people can get behind, allowing for greater success.
Myth #6 – Empathy Cannot Be Learned
I must admit that empathy does not come easy to some leaders. Some people seem to be born with it or have an innate sense of empathy as a source of strength. Others just don’t seem to have a feel for soft skills like empathy.
Leaders who do not feel a natural sense of empathy may think that it’s not worth their time to incorporate empathy into their respective skill sets. Sure, they may have more difficulty tapping into their natural wells of empathy, but they are just as capable as anyone else when it comes to developing essential soft skills for leadership.
Empathy is a feeling, but it also has an intellectual aspect. The more a leader learns about empathy and its measurable, positive impacts, the more they may be inclined to tap into their emotions, thus unlocking empathy.
If you are a leader who is just “not feeling it” when it comes to developing empathy, you probably need to take an approach that’s more conducive to the way you learn and change behaviors. In other words, some leaders do better by approaching empathy via the head instead of the heart. Either way, empathy is something that can be learned.
What Empathy Myths Have You Busted?
Did I miss any important myths about empathy in this article? Have you confronted some different empathy myths?
I would love to keep this discussion going, so please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or give me a call at 1.855.871.3374. I look forward to hearing from you!