A Coaching Power Tool Created by Theano Kalavana
(Business Coach, CYPRUS)
The torrent of research and opinion touting empathy as vital to effective business leadership (Bass, 1985; Wilson, 2015; Humphrey 2002) was still flowing when the backlash started. Skeptics began expressing wariness and even outright hostility (Bloom 2016) toward the role of empathy in the workplace. The debate continues, as both sides miss an essential truth – not all empathy is created equal.
Empathy is defined as “the ability to comprehend another’s feelings and to re-experience them oneself”. Empathy represents one of the most important aspects of emotionally intelligent behaviour (Salovey & Mayer, 1990,pp.194-195). Empathy involves both a cognitive (understanding another’s state) and an affective (sharing another’s state) component (Eisenberg, 2000). Great leadership hinges on understanding the difference and how to harness the unique power of each.
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. Also, research indicates that leaders with higher levels of cognitive empathy experience a greater sense of well-being, personal growth, and career satisfaction. Using cognitive empathy requires leaders to think about feelings rather than to feel them directly. Cognitive empathy is an outgrowth of self-awareness.
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. Studies have shown that physicians who strongly identify with their patients’ emotions suffer personal distress and a decline in professional performance (Lamothe et al, 2014), and are prone to emotional exhaustion (Girgis, Hansen & Goldstein, 2009). While most executives aren’t dealing with life or death issues, the stakes often feel just as high. Business leaders who can’t keep some emotional balance from the problems of the people they see at work every day may be as susceptible as doctors to burnout.
Empathy can be learned and controlled
Goleman (2011) argued that the antidote for affective empathy that can lead to emotional exhaustion is “emotional self-management skills”, which can help the client keep emotional empathy in balance. On the other hand, leaders low in empathy possess a more antisocial orientation towards employees, engaging in aggression and unethical decision making (Detert, Trevino & Sweitzer, 2008). There is a false assumption that empathy is a matter of personality rather than skill. It is proven that empathy can be taught as a skill and is already being taught in medical schools around the world and departments of nursing. Of course, as Norfolk et al. (2007) mentioned the first in empathy is to be motivated and engaged to understand the client’s perspective and communicate that to the client through effective communication.
Application of high Cognitive and high Affective Empathy in Emotional Leaders (an example)
L: 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.
E: Thank you! You know I really need the extra money, as we are buying a house with my wife now, and you know she is pregnant too, and she is still without a job, and based on these developments she won’t be able to find a job until she gives birth.
L: I fully understand, as 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 present high cognitive and high affective empathy, create a warm, friendly environment and easily establish rapport. However, they may fail 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 since we cannot really know how someone will react. 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 an employee from veering off in the wrong direction.
Emotional Leader’s Reflection
Challenges involved in the above experience:
Not to disappoint the employee
Perspectives, beliefs and feelings present in the above experience:
- Heart to heart emotional empathy
- Perceiving the employee's personal matters as their own
- Feeling sorry for the employee and his/her situation
- Feeling guilty that as a leader is in a better situation
- Take it personally and feel obliged to improve employees life through raising his/her salary
- Overwhelmed (anxiety) because leader make a promise that is not aligned with the company’s regulation for raising the salary
Shifting from the heart-to-heart of emotional empathy to the head-to-heart of cognitive empathy by using Mindfulness
In social and emotional learning method what is important is to strengthen cognitive control. For instance, in school children when they are confronted with an upsetting problem they taught them to think of the red traffic light which means to stop, calm down and think before acting out. The stronger their cognitive control the less susceptible they are to distraction. Similarly, with adults and leaders, they can be coached and learn to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is about changing the relationship between our thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness creates the space between thoughts, emotions and actions which is important for leaders who are more into the heart to heart emotional empathy.
In the book of Chade-Meng Tan (2012), there are several steps that can be taken in order to regulate emotions through mindfulness and thus learn to use cognitive empathy. The one model below it is called the Siberian North Railroad:
- STOP – Pause, do not react for a moment.
- BREATHE – focusing on your breath and taking conscious breaths calms the body and mind.
- NOTICE what you are feeling, how does this feel like in the body? Notice without judging yourself for experiencing these feelings.
- REFLECT-Where is the emotion coming from? Is there a history behind it? Is it because of a person? Or a thought?
- RESPOND-How you can respond to the situation and having a positive outcome for you?
Goldin(2008) argued that emotional state can rapidly shift into fear or anxiety, this reactivity takes place in the limbic system (emotional brain) which then gives signals to other parts of the brain in order to regulate emotions that’s why people experience changes in the way of thinking (not thinking clearly), their attention and behaviour. This is what happens when we are “hijacked” by our emotions.
Image 1. Source Chate-Meng, T. (2012).
Coaching to balance empathy needs more than one session and leaders need time to practice mindfulness. Through coaching, leaders can become fully aware of their emotions, thoughts and achieve new learning as to how to respond instead of reacting.
Some questions that can help leaders to succeed are:
- What is the most important feeling that you would like to control when empathizing with your employees?
- What can facilitate your success in balancing your empathy?
- Is there a situation or a person that will make it difficult for you to balance your empathy responses?
- Is there a situation or a person that will make it easy for you to balance your empathy responses?
- What parts from mindfulness is easier to apply at the moment?
- Is there anyone that you would like to discuss with the shifting you are trying to achieve from heart to heart affective empathy to head to heart cognitive empathy?
- What will you do when other tasks interfere with your journey to balance your empathetic responses?
Bass, B.M. (1985) Leadership and Performance beyond expectations, New York; Free Press.
Chate-Meng, T. (2012). Search inside yourself: Increase productivity, creativity and happiness. UK: Collins.
Detert, J.R., Trevino, L.K. & Sweitzer, V.L. (2008). Moral disengagement in ethical decision making: A study of antecedents and outcomes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 93, 374-391.
Eisenberg, N. (2000). Empathy and sympathy. In M. Lewis & J.M.Haviland-Jones (Eds.), Handbook of emotions (pp.677-691). New York: Guilford Press.
Girgis, A., Hansen, V., Goldstein, D. (2009). Are Australian oncology health professionals burning out? A view from the trenches. European Journal of Cancer, 45, 393-399.
Goldin, P. (2008). The neuroscience of Emotions. .
Goleman, D. (2011). The brain and emotional intelligence: new insights. More than Sound, Northampton, M.A.
Humphrey, R.H. (2002). The many faces of emotional leadership. The Leadership Quarterly13, 493-504.
Lamothe, M., Boujut, E., Zenasni, F., Sultan, S. (2014). To be or not be empathic: the combined role of empathic concern and perspective-taking in understanding burnout in general practice. BMC Family Practice, 15(15), 1-7.
Norfolk, T., Birdi, K., & Walsh, D. (2007). The role of empathy in establishing rapport in the consultation: a new model. Medical Ethics, 41(7), 690-697.
Salovey, P., &Mayer, J.D. (1990). Emotional intelligence.Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
Wilson III, E. (2015). Empathy is still lacking in the Leaders that need it most, HBR.org.