Finding the right level of empathy

Published on: April 2018

Written by: Philios Andreou

Empathy in business works, but only if leaders use the right type at the appropriate level.

Not all empathy is created equal.

Psychologists recognize two kinds of empathy: affective and cognitive. Great leadership hinges on understanding the difference and how to harness the unique power of each.

Affective empathy involves stepping into another person’s emotional state (“I feel your pain”). Cognitive empathy requires a genuine understanding of someone else’s condition (“I see what you mean”). Both types have their place in business but the most effective leaders emphasize cognitive over affective empathy.

Just as there is more than one kind of empathy there is more than one way to fail at empathy. For argument’s sake, let’s consider the hypothetical example of Jenny and Simon, two rising stars at an international manufacturing company who both saw their career trajectory stall because of flawed management styles.

Jenny approaches decisions dispassionately using her keen intellect to rationally assess a situation and respond appropriately. That clear-headed thinking propelled her up the corporate hierarchy. She now heads a large multiregion team. Unfortunately, she’s often perceived as blunt, insensitive and uncaring. Some of her team’s top talent has left the company.

Simon is liked by all, especially his direct reports. His ability to engage colleagues helped him scale the ranks quickly. Now that he’s in a position of power, though, he struggles to make tough decisions, constantly worrying about how his actions will make others feel. As fond as they are of him, Simon’s subordinates have lost confidence in his leadership.

Jenny and Simon are representative of company managers we meet every day. Jenny’s problem is easy to diagnose. She lacks empathy. Simon’s shortcoming might not be as readily apparent but it’s just as destructive. He’s got an excess of affective empathy.

One of the qualities most successful professionals share is their ability to relate to people and be sensitive to their needs. Communication, self-efficacy and trust can pay off in employee satisfaction and productivity. By showing awareness of and concern for the needs of others, managers strengthen their standing as leaders, enhance their credibility and improve their team’s attitudes.

Even though evidence supports the importance of empathy in leadership, there is danger in being empathic in such a way as to lose or diminish executive leadership skills such as planning, organizing, problem-solving and decision-making. Leadership is based on the performance of complex tasks, requiring objectivity and a willingness to take unpopular actions when necessary.

Cognitive empathy is what allows leaders to balance their relationships by creating a comforting, friendly atmosphere with their employees while also encouraging the latter’s self-efficacy. This level of clarity benefits everyone involved in the interaction. At the same time, the leader can perform well on executive skills. Leaders with higher levels of cognitive empathy experience a greater sense of well-being, personal growth and career satisfaction.

Affective empathy can likewise help leaders build trust, rapport and cooperation. This is important for ensuring employee engagement but it may work against an objective decision-making process. In heavy doses, affective empathy can also have other side effects. Business leaders who can’t keep some emotional distance from the problems of the people they see at work every day may be as susceptible to burnout.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example of a situation all managers face: An employee asks for a raise. Rajiv, a stellar performer, approaches his manager Noella to make his request. Noella knows both that Rajiv deserves the salary increase and that company policy won’t allow it at this time. It may sound like a straightforward discussion. The results though will vary greatly depending on Noella’s empathy style.

The Manager/Leader

Noella: Let me explain a few things to you regarding salary increases. The company’s regulations say that a raise is possible when the employee fulfills criteria (a), (b) and (c). Furthermore, these decisions are made once a year at the end of the year. So at the moment there is nothing that can be done. When the right time comes, then we will go through each employee’s records and achievements and we will invite you to submit your application regarding a salary raise.

Rajiv: OK. Thank you.

Lacking both cognitive and affective empathy, Noella doesn’t try to connect with Rajiv on any level beyond reciting company policy. Such leaders fail to recognize empathic opportunities with their followers for two reasons: one is conscious avoidance because they cannot deal with people’s emotions; the other is they are so focused on their own agenda they ignore their employee’s concerns.

They appear to be totally inflexible and they rely on the hierarchical model and positional directions. Rajiv comes away from the conversation demotivated, not because he didn’t get a raise but because his boss does not appear to value him as an employee or a person.

The friendly colleague leader

Noella: Oh yes, I am sorry to hear that you need so much extra money. Surely, you are great. You are one of our best employees, and I really feel what you are saying. I don’t want you to feel that we treat you unfairly. We do have regulations regarding salary increases but there is no doubt you deserve a raise. I promise I will do everything I can to make that happen as it is only fair.

Rajiv: Thank you. You know my wife is still without a job and we are planning to buy a new house now that she is pregnant. I struggle so much financially with these developments in my life and that’s another reason why I asked for the extra money.

Thank you. I really need the money. Once we move to our new place I will invite you for dinner. Many thanks for sorting this out for me!

Noella presents low cognitive and high affective empathy, a classic friendly colleague-leader. These leaders encourage the sharing of feelings but they have difficulty managing others’ emotions and they often struggle or fail to set boundaries.

Furthermore, they have difficulty applying executive skills such as action planning, decision-making and problem-solving. When a problem occurs, they focus more on dealing with the emotions that result from the problem instead of solving the problem itself. Leaders in this category have great vulnerability to burnout. As for Rajiv, his attitude and productivity will likely decline when Noella can’t deliver on the raise.

The emotional leader

Noella: I absolutely understand your request and I do acknowledge and value the reasons you give for needing a raise. There is no doubt that you deserve a salary increase. We have certain regulations regarding raises for our employees but let me see what I can do about this. I think I will manage to process your request but allow me some time to see how this can be done. Thank you for talking to me. You have every right to demand this raise based on what you have achieved.

Rajiv: Thank you! I really need the extra money as we are buying a house and you know my wife is pregnant and unemployed, and based on these developments she won’t be able to find a job until she gives birth.

Noella: I have gone through this myself. Don’t worry, I will do everything I can to sort this out for you. Good luck with the new things in your life!

Emotional leaders who have high cognitive and high affective empathy create a warm, friendly environment and easily establish rapport. However, they may fail as Noella does in this conversation to communicate clearly the ground rules of the company. This may lead to endless conversations with their subordinates based on the latter’s needs. These leaders also tend to waste a lot of their limited time trying to predict how others will think or feel about a decision, an ultimately futile habit. Usually, leaders high in cognitive empathy and high in affective empathy need a close partner who is low in affective empathy in order to execute decisions. Such a partner could have kept this discussion with Rajiv from veering off into the wrong direction.

The inspirational/effective leader

Noella: I absolutely understand your request and I do acknowledge and value the reasons you give for needing a raise. There is no doubt that you have achieved much within this period and I appreciate that you came and talked with me today. Let me tell you how we see things at this moment in time and how these are related to your salary request. The company does take into consideration employees’ achievements and performance, and thus, we do show appreciation back to our employees through raises and bonuses. This type of decision in accordance with the company’s policies is discussed once a year during the board’s annual meeting and this usually happens at the end of the year. There are also certain criteria under which we raise employees’ salaries, and these are (a), (b) and (c). So, based on what I just told you, there is no doubt that if you continue the way you are at the moment, when it is time your salary will increase. How does this sound to you?

Rajiv: Thanks for listening to me and explaining the policies and procedures. Even though I need the money, I do understand what you just told me. I will try to meet these criteria as soon as I can. Thank you.

Noella: Thank you! I’m looking forward to hearing about your further progress and successes in our company. Your exceptional work surely adds to our team.

Noella shows high cognitive empathy and low affective empathy in this discussion. Leaders who strike this balance tend to be the most effective in creating rapport within a comfortable, warm, inspiring environment. Followers and clients of inspirational/effective leaders feel that their concerns are recognized, acknowledged and validated.

At the same time, they experience feelings of security because the ground rules are clear and because actions, decisions and solutions are identified objectively. This is when empathy can help create maximum engagement and productivity. As for Rajiv, even though he won’t be getting a pay raise yet, he comes away from the conversation feeling validated and motivated.

Empathy can be developed

Empathy styles have serious implications for the everyday interactions that lead to success or failure. A leader who maintains a balance between cognitive and affective empathy can nurture a feeling of closeness and of being understood and appreciated while also helping to create a high-performing organization that achieves its targets for growth and profitability.

Fortunately, empathy isn’t an inherent trait but a muscle that managers can develop. Here are some ways leaders can boost their cognitive empathy skills while learning to control affective empathy:

  • Look for situations that call for applying empathy and respond accordingly.
  • Never ignore an opportunity to be empathic but deal with your own emotions before listening to the difficulties of others.
  • Practice active listening skills. Focus on what you are hearing and recognize and validate the other person’s experience. For example, say, “This must be hard. No wonder you couldn’t …” instead of, “If I were you, I’d …”
  • Be an observer of what you are listening to and keep some psychological and emotional distance. For example, say, “It sounds as if this is a difficult time for you,” instead of, “I am sorry for you.”
  • Focus on the problem, not on the emotions that are the result of the problem.
  • Keep your own feelings to yourself. When you listen to others’ feelings, acknowledge them but keep in mind that what happened had nothing to do with you. Control your feelings of guilt especially when what you are hearing has no relation to your own actions. Feeling sorry creates an unequal relationship.
  • Don’t reflexively apologize. Say sorry only when what you are hearing was a result of an action that you took.
  • Be genuine in your reactions. What you say must reflect in your facial expressions.

It’s time for a more nuanced understanding of empathy as both essential and potentially destructive. It’s time to start differentiating the particular architecture of empathy leaders apply to achieve desired business results. It’s time to remember what Stephen Covey wrote nearly three decades ago: “When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air. And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving.”