Leadership Advice

How leaders can manage the toll empathy takes

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

You’ve heard it from me and plenty of others: Empathy is a critical skill for leaders. Its importance has been magnified over the last few years. I’ve shared tips for those who lack it. I’ve also provided guidance on how to be empathetic while still holding people accountable

I know you can do it. In fact, empathetic managers are known to be more effective in delivering criticism because they anticipate how recipients will feel and work hard to craft constructive messages. Low-empathy supervisors are often blunt and tactless, causing collateral damage.

But here’s a warning for the empathetic: Being the bearer of bad news takes a toll on you. 

Research reported in the Harvard Business Review finds that after empathetic managers provide negative feedback, they can feel so bummed that it temporarily affects their performance. They’re not as focused and motivated. It’s especially the case if recipients of the feedback become upset. Their anger, sadness, or fear have an impact on the empathetic, for whom it is quite natural to feel the pain of others.

Low-empathy managers simply soldier on in situations like that. They often feel better and more motivated after delivering negative feedback because, according to the researchers, they feel they’ve dealt effectively with a problem, even when they haven’t.

So, while employees are better served by empathetic managers who give them a healthy diet of feedback of all kinds, those managers need support when the going gets tough.

If you have a high capacity for empathy, here are some tips to keep from getting dragged down because of a tough conversation:

  • Prepare in advance. Do a role play with another manager so you can anticipate the range of emotions that may arise in the real conversation. 
  • Debrief with another manager after a difficult conversation — someone who understands the toll these things can take on you, even when they are necessary. 
  • Be strategic about when you schedule negative feedback talks. Don’t do them right before another responsibility that requires you to be at the top of your game. 
  • Do something positive after a tough talk, something that feeds your soul and reminds you of all the good you can do as a leader.

Here’s one more thing to remind yourself: If you don’t talk with people about performance gaps or behavior issues, you may be harming the credibility of your organization and hurting other members of your team. I know you wouldn’t want to do that.

And if you don’t address the problems, someone with less heart and skill than yours may do it — and nowhere near as well.

© Jill Geisler


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