Why Don’t Leaders Practice Empathy?

Empathy is an indispensable leadership skill and a driver that predicts high-performing teams and organizations, but there is a significant gap between how leaders assess their empathy skills and how their employees view them. Dr. Arthur Schwartz, Professor of Leadership Studies and Founding Director of the Oskin Leadership Institute at Widener University, offers five key reasons why leaders do not practice empathy consistently:

Technological issues hold the top spots in consulting firm DDI’s annual list of the “Top 10” leadership topics, says Schwartz, but “empathy” also made the list (as #10). “DDI explained that leaders across all sectors are talking about empathy because empathy is an indispensable leadership skill in the contemporary workplace,” he explains, noting that “managers engage in conversations every day that help (or hinder) the building of trust between a manager and employee—and we know from recent research that trust is the glue of effective leadership.

“Empathy is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of others. Similar to other workplace abilities, empathy is a muscle that leaders need to exercise on a regular basis,” says Schwartz, and “leader empathy is one of the drivers that predict ‘high-performing’ teams and organizations.  Yet research reveals a gnawing gap between managers who report ‘I show empathy’ and employees who disagree with their manager’s self-assessment.” CEOs are now recognizing “that too many managers and supervisors—including themselves—are empathy-deficient.”

Why do leaders struggle with empathy? Schwartz offers five reasons:

  • Just ‘fix it’: “Some leaders are so action-oriented they simply can’t understand why a leader should sometimes listen and empathize. Why, these leaders ask, should I show empathy when I can just ‘fix’ the problem?” 
  • Cultural Climate: “Too many organizations are laser-focused on achieving their goals and objectives no matter the cost to employees….Leader empathy is simply not valued across the organization; nor is it modeled by the senior team.” 
  • Too ‘Touchy-Feely’: Some leaders “simply have difficulty with emotion. They don’t understand why their team members can’t just ‘park’ their emotions at the front gate. For these leaders, emotions are too touchy-feely.”
  • Bad Listeners: “Most organizations don’t promote their front line managers because they are effective listeners; rather these emerging leaders quickly learn that for them to move up the organizational ladder they need to demonstrate task-oriented skills. 

Competing agendas. “Leaders with high empathy like people and enjoy helping others. However, too many leaders aren’t wired that way; instead, they’re driven to meet deadlines or performance targets. In short, there are times when leaders don’t respond with empathy because their own agenda gets in the way.”

“Empathy is a powerful tool for all leaders to have in their leadership toolbox. Empathy binds and motivates teams to perform beyond expectations,” says Schwartz. “Leader empathy enhances employee productivity, loyalty, and retention…and “it all starts when managers value their team members as individuals rather than just coldly calculating how this member contributes to the bottom line. This means being interested in the needs, hopes, and dreams of your team members—their personal goals as well as their career aspirations.”

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