Do business leaders really need empathy?

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes can leave you vulnerable to bias.

Last Updated: 12 Jun 2017

It sounds like a no brainer. Would you prefer to be led by someone who really understands how you feel, or someone who doesn’t? It’s little wonder that empathy is regarded as a prerequisite of the modern leader, a key component of that all-important quality emotional intelligence.

But there’s actually something of a debate on about this. While the likes of Barack Obama speak of an ‘empathy deficit’ that needs to be resolved, and ITV chairman Peter Bazalgette writes of its virtues in his book The Empathy Instinct: How to Create a More Civil Society, others are not convinced.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, for instance, calls empathy a terrible moral guide in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. For him:

‘Empathy is biased, pushing us in the direction of parochialism and racism. It is short-sighted, motivating actions that might make things better in the short term but lead to tragic results in the future. It is innumerate, favouring the one over the many. It can spark violence; our empathy for those close to us is a powerful force for war and atrocity towards others. It is corrosive of personal relationships; it exhausts the spirit and can diminish the force of kindness and love.’

So should business leaders be empathic or not?

It’s important first of all to distinguish between emotional empathy (feeling how you believe others feel) from cognitive empathy (understanding how others think). Cognitive empathy is just essential for a good leader. It is impossible to negotiate, persuade, convince or inspire if you have no clue how others will react to your words or actions. Duh.

Emotional empathy is more complex. Inside an organisation, you will be a better leader if your team believes you care about them, but empathy is not the same as caring (to comfort a frightened child, Bloom points out, you do not need to feel the same fear). Indeed, empathy produces a bias towards people who are like you, so it could make you a worse judge of character and ultimately cost your business talent and make it vulnerable to group think.

So far it’s Reason 1: Empathy 0. Outside the organisation though, emotional empathy is more of an asset. To make, market and sell a truly outstanding product or service, you need more than just a cerebral understanding of your customers’ wants and needs. You need to understand their emotional lives too – how will this make them feel? Good sales people in particular, Bazalgette says, have this quantity in spades.

So empathy can still come in handy in business, and besides it remains an important part of the human experience. The key is perhaps not to ignore it but to challenge it. Acknowledging that your empathy for others could reflect unconscious biases will help (just because you and your friends think a novelty wine dispensing hat is a great idea, doesn’t mean everyone else will). More importantly still, you need to remain open to being convinced by evidence and reasoned argument.

‘If doctors and nurses simply burst into tears when faced with disease they wouldn't be much use. Professional training and a sense of ethics are also critical,’ Bazalgette tells MT. ‘We need to blend the precious empathy instinct with a sense of fairness and reciprocity. Having empathy for others shouldn't mean you're just a soft touch.’

All things considered, possessing empathy is still of course an asset for an aspiring leader. As with any other leadership quality though, whether it translates into success will depend on how you use it.

Image credit: Nathan/Flickr (creative commons)

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