How much empathy do you have?
A view from Sue Unerman

How much empathy do you have?

Empathy is a finite resource, according to HBR's Adam Waytz. If I am empathetic towards you today, I will have less empathy towards my friend at dinner this evening.

If you take on board one colleague’s problem over lunch, you’re going to be less ready to shoulder the burden of a team member at teatime.

In light of this you may run the risk of short changing the later colleague simply because you have exhausted your empathy stock too early in the day.  Or of giving friends and family short shrift when you get home from work. 

Empathy is crucial to the culture of the workplace.  If we are in need of support and don’t receive it then we topple.  A system is only as strong as its weakest link after all.

This is a dilemma. Waytz, an associate professor at the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management, offers 3 strategies to help to manage empathy exchange at work:  Allocating people for empathy – selective assigned empathising; Encourage mutual empathy sessions; Give people empathy breaks.

Or you could stop overdoing empathy. 

Of course, give help where help is needed.  Of course solve your high performers’ problems without a second thought. 

But….

Empathy is our start point so often for everyone’s problem.  Someone comes to you with a problem at work for instance missing a deadline, not having the right documents in a meeting or failing to secure a deal. Very often the default response is: "Poor you, that’s not fair, you’re under such pressure, how on earth can you be expected to work under those conditions".

If that isn’t your response naturally then in most businesses you had better learn it, otherwise you may be labelled "not a people person" and good luck with your promotion prospects if that’s the case.

Kim Scott has built a successful coaching career with an empathy overload antidote.  She points out that being a good boss, in the long term, is not about offering empathy.  I’d argue this is also true of being a good colleague.  If you’re trying to help someone, layering what you really think with lots and lots of sugar and thick thick marzipan, may mean that it is too easy for them to miss the point.

She says that pointing out candidly what you really think is in fact your job.  If someone turns up to a meeting,  and has omitted to bring a copy of the most up to date plan for example in hard copy when the team need to see it, it really isn’t that helpful if your only reaction is to empathise.   Certainly this is unlucky for them, unfortunate they didn’t realise that no-one else was bringing it, what a shame that the printer didn’t work and that there’s no access to it electronically.  However just feeling for them in that situation is nowhere near as useful to their career development as also pointing out that they should have double checked.  And not left it till the last minute.   Scott asserts that frank candour in this situation is the only way to allow your team to grow and develop.

I feel for you.  But wake up and smell the coffee.  Too much empathy in the workplace may be stifling everyone’s career development.  

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom
@sueu

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