Finding the Right Level of Empathy: Do You Have Too Little (or Too Much)?

Not all empathy is created equal, say researchers. You need to have empathy as a leader, of course, but it’s all about having the right amount – not too much, not too little.

The danger lies in being so empathetic that you lose the ability to problem-solve and make good decisions, say communication expert Theano V. Kalavana and corporate consultant Philios Andreou.

The researchers defined four leadership styles in to help you recognize how well you communicate with your team:

  1. The low-empathy leader

Lacking empathy, this leader doesn’t try to connect with an employee on any level beyond company policies and procedures. Such leaders fail to recognize empathic opportunities with their staff because they cannot deal with anyone’s emotions or are so focused on their own agenda that they ignore staffers’ concerns. This out-of-touch leader has a serious empathy deficit.

  1. The friendly colleague leader

The sharing of feelings is fine with the friendly colleague leader, but he or she has difficulty managing others’ emotions and often struggles or fails to set boundaries. So when a problem occurs, this leader focuses more on dealing with the emotions that result from the problem instead of solving the problem itself. These leaders, who can’t keep some emotional distance, are susceptible to burnout because their empathy level is too high. They need to go into problem-solving mode more quickly as soon as a problem occurs.

  1. The too emotional leader

The too emotional leader creates a warm, friendly environment for staffers, however, she fails to communicate clearly company policies and procedures. This leads to endless conversations with staffers. These leaders waste more time trying to predict how others will feel about a decision they’ve made – a futile effort. Not only will this too-high level of empathy lead to burnout, it could also damage your effectiveness to lead your team.

  1. The empathetic, effective leader

The empathetic, effective leader creates a comfortable, warm, inspiring environment. At the same time, this leader is productive because actions, decisions and solutions are identified objectively. And staffers know that they will come away from a conversation feeling validated and motivated. This leader has the right level of empathy.

Fortunately, no matter what level of empathy you might have now, you can improve to strike the right balance. Empathy isn’t an inherent trait, but “a muscle that managers can develop,” say the researchers.

Here are some ways you can stretch – or contract – your empathy muscle, depending on your own leadership style.

To up your empathy levels …

Here are some ways to boost your empathy levels:

Check yourself first. Never ignore an opportunity to be empathetic but deal with your own emotions before listening to the difficulties of others.

Find the commonality. If an employee comes to you with a problem or complaint, find a way to put yourself in their shoes. Ask yourself: “Why does this person feel this way? What can I do to make the situation better?”

Hone your listening skills. Focus on what you’re hearing and recognize and validate the other person’s experience. You might say, “This must be hard. No wonder you …” instead of “If I were you, I’d …”

Be genuine. What you say must reflect in your facial expression.

To avoid emotional overload …

Here’s how to manage your team’s emotions, without getting overly emotional yourself:

Keep a distance. When you listen to others’ feelings, acknowledge them but keep in mind what happened had nothing to do with you. You could say, “It sounds like this is a difficult time for you,” instead of “I’m sorry for you.”

Focus on the problem, not on the emotions that are the result of the problem.

Don’t reflexively apologize. Say sorry only when what you are hearing was a result of an action that you took.

“When you listen with empathy to another person, you give that person psychological air,” writes Stephen R. Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “And after that vital need is met, you can then focus on influencing or problem solving.” In other words, leaders need to listen with empathy first, then lead.