Why leaders can get empathy wrong and how to get it right

Posted on Aug 22, 2022 in Communication,Conflict Resolution,Mediation,Workplace Behaviours . 0 Comments.

When self-image collides with reality

So how do you handle someone who has one very strong view of themselves and yet the experience of them is quite the opposite?

Fifteen minutes into the mediation session, a Contact Officer at a significant organisation, James*, stood up and said “I don’t need to hear this”. He then stormed out of the room! That was it. Conversation – over. I had clearly got that wrong, and James was self-evidently not ready for this. However, my key learning is I hadn’t effectively managed the conflict between his self-image and reality.

A self-identified empath may not be seen as empathetic by peers

There were red flags in the preparation that this young man had a distorted self-image. He viewed himself as empathetic, supportive and emotionally calm in a storm. He stated “I am a Contact Officer and people really value me for this”. He also explained, “I am renowned amongst my friends as the person to speak with if you are going through a difficult time.”

Wonderful? Yes. However, his explanation was concerning as the unstated implication of his observation was the issues in this workplace conflict were clearly the fault of the other person and were not a reflection of him. So, when we embarked a difficult conversation together and he was confronted with his behaviour, self-righteous indignation boiled up and out-the-door he stormed.

It’s preferable to progress through emotion than to remain stuck in emotion

A walk out does not mean the end of dialogue. It can be an opportunity to continue a discussion in a more direct way. Through a number of brief conversations, I was able to talk James off the ledge and back into individual dialogues with me.

As I re-progressed through the exploration phase with James, it became apparent that as a Contact Officer, there was a pattern where he would buy into other people’s stories. He simply accepted the other person’s narrative and consequently he would unknowingly embed that person in the emotion they were experiencing.

The impact of this was that he was not able to be an effective support person who helped another make sense of their experiences and consequent emotions, and the reality was despite his best intentions, he was unable to respond to the situation in a personally and organisationally effective manner. Instead, the impact of his approach was unhelpful as he was rooting the person in their issue. While James considered his behaviour to be empathetic, in the context of a workplace this approach is highly problematic and is not uncommon amongst managers experiencing unwanted conflict with peers.

The danger of being unaware of heightened emotions

The reality was that James was heightened in his own emotional responses yet unaware – hence the storm out. His actual behaviour was entirely at odds with his own self-perception. James described his response as calm on the surface, yet the reality was it was disruptive, judgmental and blaming. This does not mean that it was one way traffic in the conflict situation, rather his self-image was not how others experienced him. This blind spot was both a significant contributor to ongoing conflict and a blocker to a path for resolution. It was challenging to be working with a person who considered themselves emotionally evolved, when in reality they actually misunderstood their emotional response mechanisms.

Call it out without blowing it up

The challenge was how to call this out without another storm off, without forcing him into a defensive rejection of the whole process and thereby embedding this misjudgement about himself even further. In this case, and it took a number of sessions, I zoomed in on his self-definition. I encouraged James to describe what being empathetic meant in ever greater detail and just why it is so important. He realised that I accepted this self-definition and acknowledged it was a great achievement and he was clearly proud of his efforts.

What is and is not empathy

Together we agreed that an empathetic leader is far more complex than just listening to another’s story and carrying some of their emotion. We discussed that in essence, it is about perspective taking, being non-judgemental, understanding the other’s emotions and being present. However, that is just the start, it is also someone who expresses:

  1. The need to be honest, which includes challenging conversations with their people. Yes, they should demonstrate a genuine interest in the lives of team members, the challenges they face, and their overall feelings, however they need to be honest (though not judgmental) to maximise opportunities for growth.
  2. Makes an effort to understand a team member’s unique situation and what they are going through. They need to be supportive and hear the person, but simply carrying a part of that person’s emotion is emotional contagion and is not demonstrating understanding.
  3. When crafting support to a person, it needs to be a genuine offer, however it is not about solving the other’s problems. Only they can do that.

The hard task of learning

I asked James to explain how such a person would react to various situations. We worked on this together, from the very simple and through scenarios of ever-growing complexity. In the end, James set a very high bar for his own personal conduct during these conversations. It was interesting to see that this approach reinforced to him that his basic views about what is good (being empathetic) was right and supported, yet it was clear to us both, he was still learning what this really meant.

James shared that his previous responses had been more limited than he realised. After a number of sessions, we grappled with the issues in this specific conflict situation, which included his erratic overly emotional responses. It was amazing to see him actually demonstrate true empathy when he realised the impact he was having on the other. The penny had dropped and his journey of being a true empathetic leader had begun.

I was impressed that James was willing and able to reflect on his self-image and this will definitely allow him to step into his working relationships differently. Now we were in a position to actually start the facilitated conversation and to re-establish an effective working relationship, as first intended. It is rewarding when clients later acknowledge that our time together has helped enrich their professional and personal relationship.

We would love to hear from you about how you have grappled with tough and overly emotional workplace conflict. Please contact Zalt Group, if you would like to discuss any issues in the workplace that are causing conflict and seek resolution.

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James* – Fictional names and workplaces have been applied to protect the identity of our client and to honour all client confidentiality.


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