Why Empathy Matters in Leadership

“A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.”

You’ve probably seen this sign on someone’s desk or door in your office.  Perhaps someone even has muttered the words to you in a moment of frustration.

Here’s the thing about this statement —  everyone agrees with it.  Everyone.  If this saying is mentioned in a meeting, you will see a universal nodding of heads.  Every person believes that everyone else is the trouble maker.  If I mess up and cause a problem down the line of implementation, it is because of unforeseen circumstances that could not have been avoided.  However, when anyone else injects an urgent matter into our otherwise well-structured day, we tend to ascribe a bad cause to their plight.  They simply didn’t care enough about their work (or they are inconsiderate of another’s time, or they are incompetent, etc.) to plan appropriately.

This is not unique of course.  There are many other situations in which we attribute positive causes to our own behaviors and attribute more negative reasons for the actions of others.  For instance, we may attribute someone’s professional success to “luck” or even to being “conniving,” while attributing our own success to “hard work and perseverance.”  The idea of “blaming the victim” is another example of how we attribute blame to others but less frequently to ourselves.  This is what our psychologist friends call “fundamental attribution error.”  And most everyone does it in some way, shape, or form.

The problem with attribution error, though, is that it can result in a lot of bad decisions.  For instance, if a leader attributes an employee’s poor performance to a lack of effort, then the outcome is likely to be negative for that employee.  She may receive a poor performance evaluation or even be asked to leave. Conversely, if the manager perceives that the employee’s poor performance is due to a lack of knowledge, skill or due to some other contextual cause, she may be given further training, coaching, or assistance.

As leaders, we need to be mindful of how easy it is to err in attribution.  Further, we need to strive to become more empathic.  When we pause to ask questions, really listen, and learn about the circumstances and motivations of those team members in our care, we may find that our first attributions were wrong-headed.  Becoming a more empathic leader doesn’t mean becoming a nicer, softer, warmer and fuzzier leader.  Empathy in leadership isn’t about becoming more in touch with your emotions.

Instead, becoming more empathic means working to better understand others’ strengths, weaknesses, circumstances, and motivations.  It also means understanding how others perceive you.  Ultimately, it means making wiser decisions.  Decisions not based on biases and faulty attributions.  But decisions based on a keen and personal understanding of others and the perceptions that shape their thinking and behavior.  And when that happens, individuals and institutions become better.


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