In the workplace, however, some might argue that empathy has no place. Especially in highly competitive businesses, leaders are expected to be tough, to get on with it, and not be swayed by personal issues or the emotions of others. In a predominantly results and numbers driven world, could empathy hinder people from getting the job done?
One area in which empathy can play an important role is in managing a “bad boss”. By bad bosses, we mean those who micromanage, bully, avoid conflict, duck decisions, steal credit, shift blame, hoard information, fail to listen, and generally, set a poor example. Such dysfunctional behaviours create a miserable and unproductive workplace.
Empathy-in-action means giving the relationship a chance by stepping into the boss’ shoes and considering the external pressures that boss is under. Most bad bosses are not inherently bad people; they’re good people with weaknesses that can be exacerbated by the pressure to lead and deliver results. So it’s important to consider not just how they act, but why they’re acting in a dysfunctional way.
Research has shown time and again that practicing empathy can be a game changer in difficult boss-subordinate relationships, and not just as a top-down phenomenon. Experts such as Stephen Covey (1989) and Daniel Goleman (2004) emphasise the importance of using this key aspect of emotional intelligence to manage up. Neuroscience also suggests that it’s an effective strategy, since mirror neurons in the human brain naturally prompt people to reciprocate behaviours.
Think about what can happen if these reciprocal behaviours are enacted broadly across the organisation, where both vertical and lateral relationships are characterised by high levels of empathy? An empathetic organisation is one where its members are open and transparent with one another, where courageous honest conversations take place and where people feel safe to give and receive critical feedback. This culture of open communication and listening can inspire people’s confidence in their role and contributions, in turn boosting productivity and creativity.
And as a coach or HR professional it’s our role to start that learning process with the leaders we work with. At KDVI, we offer an array of 360° feedback instruments through which leaders can hone in their empathy skills. It provides information from other points of view to allow them to build connections between their behaviours and their effect on others. When administered to intact teams and followed up with group coaching, 360° feedback provides opportunities to have courageous and honest conversations, by getting people to listen, tune in to, and connect to the minds of others.
To learn more about these instruments and how to use them effectively in a coaching session, KDVI’s Diagnosing and Initiating Change Workshop brings together coaches, business consultants and HR and L&D professionals to explore different tools that can be used to better understand a leader’s effectiveness vis-à-vis self-perceptions and the perceptions of others. This will allow leaders to increase their self-awareness as well as hone in their awareness of those around them.
To register for Diagnosing & Initiating Change, click here.
Kets de Vries, M. (2016). Why Empathy Makes for Stronger Organizations. INSEAD Knowledge.
Kets de Vries, M. (2016). Do You Hate Your Boss? Harvard Business Review.
Covey, S. (1989). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Free Press.
Goldman, D. (2004). What makes a leader? Harvard Business Review
Marsh, J. (2012). Do mirror neurons give us empathy? Interview with Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran