S1:E5 – Are You Doing Empathy Wrong?

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In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine will explore the benefits and potential pitfalls of empathy for leaders. Tune in to hear how you can avoid the empathy trap and hold others accountable while still connecting powerfully with them.


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Don’t forget to check out my You Tube channel with new videos every Wednesday on emotional intelligence, resilience, and leadership.

Check out Irvine’s new book Leadership Lessons From The Pub.

Check out Bridgette’s book which she co-authored with Bod Duggan  Resilient Leadership 2.0.

And as always, don’t forget about all the mind-blowing free resources some of which are mentioned in each episode. 


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Irvine: Well, hello and welcome everyone to this episode, five of The Resilient Leadership Podcast and everything we do here is aimed at helping you lead with greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in anxious times. And I’d love to introduce my co-host Bridgette. Bridgette, how are you doing today?

Bridgette: I’m doing great. And you know what I want to clarify for our listeners right away? Because if they’ve been listening to all the episodes, we’re at episode five, they might have picked up on something. And that is that sometimes I have called you Irvine. And so I have pronounced it Ir-vine, and I want them to understand why, because you and I go back a long ways. We’ve known each other for years.

Irvine: We do. Yes. Originally, I’m from Northern Ireland and I grew up and my name there is Ivin and when I came to the US, a lot of people pronounced it Ir-vine. So I really go by both, but when I talk about home and growing up up, and when I go home, everyone still calls me Irvine.

Bridgette: Well, so I was using Ir-vine and you never corrected me until we started doing this podcast so that’s why I was using both pronunciations, but I stand corrected and I now use Irvine, so there we go.

Irvine: There we go.

Bridgette: Clarified for listeners.

Irvine: And you see, this is a wonderful segue because there you are being very empathetic and understanding how I might feel and today’s episode actually, if there is a buzzword around leadership today, it is around empathy. And leaders are always, you got to be more empathetic and the more empathetic you are, the better. But, today’s episode is a little bit provocative because the title is Are You Doing Empathy Wrong? And we both have a very particular understanding of what it means to be empathetic and some of the pitfalls that may come. So Bridgette, why don’t you kick us off today?

Bridgette: Well, I think my understanding of the pitfalls of empathy, started when I became acquainted with Ed Friedman’s work. We mentioned Ed Friedman and Murray Bowen in our first episode, and the very first time I listened to Ed Friedman, he called it the fallacy of empathy. And he was the only person at that time, this was years ago, who was really speaking to the liabilities of empathy as it being the be all and end all of leadership. And I was hooked, I wanted to know more about that. So what we’re going to talk about is why it does matter because in fact it does, but what is that shadow side, shall we say of empathy? And how do we make sure we don’t get tripped up by it? But maybe let’s start by clarifying terms like Irvine, what’s empathy, and is it different from sympathy?

Irvine: Yeah, it’s very interesting question because I think commonly we interchange terms and actually they are very different. So empathy, let’s just start with empathy I think empathy the best way and it’s commonly used and it’s a great way is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. So it’s the ability to, first of all, understand what a person is going through, and secondly, the ability and we talked about this in our last episode, these mirror neurons, this ability to begin to feel in ourselves as well, what another person is going through. So that’s really at the core is what empathy is around. So say for example, a good friend of yours calls and they say that someone has passed and you just listening to their voice. And just in that listening, you can feel yourself becoming sad. You can almost feel a tear coming to your eyes and that’s really you’ve become empathetic for them and you’ve begun to feel with them as well.

The second term of sympathy is interesting because I think sympathies a related term, but it’s this ability to have feeling to feeling towards someone else without necessarily walking in their shoes or feeling. So like, for example, you can scroll through your feed for the day and you can see that someone’s dog has died. And you can understand that that must be something that’s very upsetting to the person, you could even write a little note. I’m really sorry for it. You can be sympathetic towards them, but doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re actually feeling what they’re feeling as well.

Bridgette: Yeah, that’s an important distinction because that, I like that phrase walking in the shoes of, I think highly empathetic people have this intuitive ability to just really not only pick up on all the moods and emotions and thoughts and feelings of other people, even they can just be in a room and they sense it, but they also have this capacity to be over there on the other side and really walk in that person’s shoes. So why would that be an important thing for leadership? Because we do want to go on the record as saying that empathy matters to leadership. We’re not here saying don’t be empathetic.

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: So what does it make possible for leaders?

Irvine: Yeah. As someone who has devoted a lot of their career to emotional intelligence, believe me, I agree with you. Empathy is important. And why is it important? Because I think what we know is there’s a lot of research done on workplace cultures that are very effective in both retain people and being productive. And what are some of the common things that we see in these places? That there is a level of trust, that people trust each other. And there’s a trust between the leader and also the people who are followers of the leader. There’s a sense of connection there, that people feel connected to one another. There’s a belonging, I think it’s a wonderful word, a sense of belonging. And people are bought into the culture and they feel, and this is critically important, listened to.

Doesn’t actually mean that their ideas are always followed, but at least they feel they’re respected and listened to. There’s a term that came out quite a few years ago called psychological safety. People feel safe enough to voice their opinion feel listened to. And at the core of all those things is empathy because empathy is this ability to make connection. Empathy is this ability to build trust. Empathy is an ability as well, to help people see that they have been seen and also heard, and this is at the core, such a powerful human need.

Bridgette: Oh. That desire to feel seen and heard, that is so deep in our core. And we know when we have been and we know we haven’t been. And I think at the end of the day, we follow leaders who care. Who care about us, who care about the mission, who care about the work. And if you don’t care, if I sense that you don’t care about me, I will comply if I have to, but I will not commit. And so that that’s also what’s at stake, is that we want people to be all in and they’re not going be all in if we can’t convey with empathy, that we care about them, that we understand them, that we connect to their whole human needs, not just the role they perform for us. Think that’s really cool.

Irvine: Bridgette, it’s also the ability in the moment to recognize when more empathy needed than not. So I remember I was coaching a client and we were talking about great bosses that they had in their passed. And I said, you know, who’s the best boss you ever had and why? And they said, you know, they had an amazing to recognize when they needed to spend more time, and in that moment know that I was listened to. And I said, well, how did they do that? They said, I went into them once and I was very concerned about something and they picked it up immediately, they got up of their desk, they walked around and they pulled up a chair and they created a connection, really interesting, created a connection, and they were just there for me. It only lasted maybe three minutes, but I felt I’d been listened to a hundred percent. As opposed to say someone who just lucks up and say, yes, I’m really busy at the moment, or just stay behind the desk and you’ve got this barrier of the desk between them. But people know when they’ve been listened to, and that’s why it’s so incredibly important.

Bridgette: Yeah. And I’m thinking I’m putting myself in the shoes of our listeners right now, and I’m wondering are some people thinking, I don’t consider myself the most naturally empathetic person. Do I fake it? What do I do? And I think it comes down to just every human being can in moments, make another person feel listened to. And every human being can make another person feel cared for. That’s within everybody’s ability. So…

Irvine: Absolutely.

Bridgette: Whether you rate yourself as highly empathetic or not so empathetic, there’s a sweet spot here.

Irvine: Absolutely. And I think Bridgette, it’s an interesting point there because we often think of empathy, something soft and mushy, if you had to describe it. But really, we’ve been talking about here is focus. So in other words, can I pull away all the different distractions and focus on this person in front of me and just listen? We’re talking really about a skill here, and I think anyone can have that skill with training.

Bridgette: Indeed.

Irvine: Yeah. So let’s now move to some of the pitfalls. So we’re both on record as saying empathy’s incredibly important, but what do you think Bridgette, for you, are some of the pitfalls of empathy when it comes to leading others?

Bridgette: Yeah. I think there’s probably, I’m going say at least three that come to mind. And the first one I’m going to say is that sometimes when we are in a highly empathetic state and we’re managing people, it can prevent us from dealing quickly and swiftly and well with performance issues. We just feel badly. Now who are we really thing badly for, is it them or us? You can make a case that sometimes we’re not having the conversation because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable, but whatever the case may be, it can get in the way of having those crucial conversations, so I think that’s one thing. I think decision making, like if you have to make an unpopular decision or if you have to make a decision that you know is going to cause other people to struggle and you’re highly empathetic, that’s tough. And yet, sometimes we are called as leaders to do just that.

And I think the other pitfall is really kind of something we talked about in the last episode with emotional contagion. People with a high degree of empathy, have a more porous membrane around them, shall we say. Because they sense and tune into and pick up on other people’s emotions and moods easily, It can also infect them more easily and that can over time lead to burnout. So there are some shadow sides to it. And you know, it’s funny that you said we both want to go on record as saying that empathy matters and we kind of chuckled about that, but listen, this is such a hot topic for people that, like Paul Bloom, he’s a psychologist. I can’t remember what university, but he wrote a book, something like the case against empathy or something and he got like hate mail. Serious hate mail. So we want to have a balanced Perspective on this. That’s what it’s really about.

Bridgette: And I think a wonderful way maybe of expressed in that Bridgette, might be, empathy, it’s a beautiful skill to have, and some people are more comfortable using it than others. I’ll put my hand up here, but it can be overused. And this is what we’re really talking about, where empathy is getting in the way and it’s been overused.

Bridgette: Yeah. In fact, I think it’s Korn Ferry that did this really interesting study of emotional intelligence and all the EQ abilities, empathy is one of them, and they had people rate leaders on these social intelligence abilities and then looked at their overall rating and their effectiveness. And what was really surprising? Is the leaders who scored really high in empathy, but low in the other emotional intelligence domains were the least effective. And I think it gets at what you were saying, which is we can overuse it, we can use it in a way where it’s not balanced with other important dimensions and skills.

Irvine: I just know from my own leadership journey when I was leading an organization as well,  I really did fall into the empathy trap and I found myself not making decisions. I rationalized it. I said, I’m not making these important decisions because I don’t have enough data or, not ready. But really at the core of it was, I wanted people to like me and I was afraid that I would disturb relationships or have to face people and tell them bad news. And that was something very uncomfortable understandably.

Bridgette: Yeah. And watch them struggle, right?

Irvine:  Absolutely.

Bridgette: And I think part of how we balance empathy and deploy it well is that we’ve got to develop greater tolerance for the struggles of others, for the disappointing others, we have to grow that muscle. That can be harder for some than it is for others. So what about this balance? This notion of balancing empathy with accountability, because what you were just saying there Irvine was like you weren’t holding people accountable per se, How do we do both, with not either or? So speak on that.

Irvine: It’s such a great question, because I think the way I like to look at it is that organizations have a culture around accountability as well and I had created an organization that really was not accountable in many different levels. And so therefore I think there is a balance. I think there’s a balance between making sure that everyone is heard, is respected, is valued and feels belonging, but at the same time is also clear that they have a role, which is vitally important to the outcome, the success, the mission of the organization. And those two are equally important. I’m thinking of a 360 tool I use called the 360 Circle, Leadership Circle.

Bridgette: Yeah. I remember that tool.

Irvine: And it measures the people along as well with the task. And I think those are two important things. So I think accountability is, first of all, the leadership accountability, are we holding people accountable to the work and the role in the organization? But I think accountability as well, is deeper than just the leader’s accountability, I think as well in good organizations, we have accountability for each other.  And I think the leader is the ultimate authority when it comes to accountability, but I think as well, we hold each other accountable. So I think if someone is not performing it’s not just the leader’s role to say, hey, you’re not performing but in a good team, it’s like, you know what? You committed to this and you’re not doing it. And so often we [inaudible 15:59],well, it’s not my role or I shouldn’t speak up, et cetera, and I think there, you almost see like empathy kind of coming in and I think though, both of those are incredibly important.

Bridgette: Yes. I think this is one of the biggest struggles of leaders to balance connection, with accountability, to balance empathy, with holding people to results. It’s just not easy. And I think sometimes we err on one side or the other, but I’m thinking of that the best example I ever saw of this was not a leader. Well, he will as a leader, but he wasn’t a leader I was coaching. He was a coach of my daughter’s soccer team.

Irvine: Oh, I love it.

Bridgette: And my daughter played soccer all the way through college since she was five, so we had many, many coaches and there was one who got this balance so well, and he was exceptional. And what I observed is all of the girls on the team really were connected to him. They really liked him, they liked to go to practice. I could see he had banter, I could see he had connection with them and not just with the group, but with individuals, but you know what? He held them accountable, they knew where the line was, he expected a lot out of them and if they didn’t live up to those expectations, he had no problem telling them. So they were incredibly well behaved and respectful, yet connected. And I just give them so much credit. I’ve just never seen somebody strike that balance so well and the team’s performance really showed it. It’s fascinating.

Irvine: Love that example. It’s a great example.

Bridgette: Yeah. So what else can we say? I think there’s another thing we have to talk about balance. And it’s how we get to this good place of being both results oriented and empathetic, and that’s understanding the difference between empathy and compassion. Can you speak to that for a minute?

Irvine: It’s really interesting because again, these are two terms that are used and at times we can misunderstand, but it’s interesting, some of the neuroscientific research coming out about the parts in the brain that are most active when these two words are being used. So, empathy, as we talked about, it’s this ability to walk in another person’s shoes to feel what they’re feeling and therefore, no surprise that when a person’s feeling empathy, the part of the brain that seems to more is the limbic system and the limbic system is the part of the brain where we know a lot of emotional processing is happening. So when it comes to empathy, there’s a lot of emotional weight happening there And a lot of emotional processing.

Now when it comes to compassion and of course, compassion it’s yes, the ability to feel, but also there’s a movement there. We’re moving now into action. And what’s interesting, there is that the part in the brain that is more involved is the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain. And so we know when it comes to compassion, yes, There is emotion, but it is quickly moving beyond the emotion And now we’re implementing much more cognitive thought about how to respond, what to do about this. And I think those two are really interesting. Part of the research coming out is that people who display more compassion are less likely to be burnt out.

Bridgette: Yes. That is really interesting. Is it not?

Irvine: Yes. [Cross-talk 19:32].

Bridgette: Because somehow there is less wear and tear on the body and on the nervous system when we’re practicing compassion, because we’re not just in the limbic system, which can be a very reactive place where we can become overwhelmed by our emotion.

Irvine: Yes. Absolutely.

Bridgette: So I think what we’re really trying to say here is as a leader, as a parent, as a human being, part of the way to use empathy, to deploy it well, is to practice compassion. It begins with empathy, it has to start as an emotion as a feeling, but then to access that higher level executive brain part, the cerebral cortex, to get us thinking about it. So we’re not just reacting, we’re thinking our way through and trying to really be judicious about how best to help somebody. Because if we just react out of emotions, sometimes we do things like over function, which we’ve talked about.. We step in ways that are not particularly helpful. In fact, that’s another pitfall, is that when we are feeling highly empathetic and we’re not taking time to step back and think our way through it, we may in a desire to feel better ourselves and to make the other person feel better, we may do things that don’t help them very much.

Irvine: Yeah. And that’s incredibly important. I love that notion of, of not stepping in. So in other words, when we have to say, let’s use the example of delivering bad news, there’s a number of pitfalls that can happen there. First of all, we can just get stuck in the emotions that we’re feeling. And at times, I think a useful exercise is the ability to be okay in difficult emotions. Be able to sit with them, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to own those difficult emotions or react from them, and then the second thing then is to provide resources for the other person that they also have a responsibility here. And it’s their responsibility to function with the resources that you provide them, and to be okay with that, and to realize that there are sometimes that as a leader decisions will be made where it’s not going to be feel good. And unfortunately that is leadership, that there are very tough decisions which have impact and you have to resonate with the fact that you’ve done your best, you’ve been compassionate in acting, but at the end of the day, it is not going to be perfect, but it is the best decision in the moment.

Bridgette: What you’re really saying is we have to trust in the resilience of the other people to handle things.

Irvine: Exactly.

Bridgette: People can handle bad news, people can handle lots of things and to trust in their resilience is a way to call forth that kind of confidence.

Irvine: Absolutely. Yes.

Bridgette: So that’s reminding me of kind of this basic practice that we want to share with listeners, and it’s about observing your default tendency. So we’re talking about balancing empathy with accountability. So each one of us has a default tendency and it’s either towards comfort people who are struggling or challenging them. Think about that. Irvine, I think I know where you fall and you probably know where I fall on that continuum. Our first tendency, our default is to comfort, nothing wrong with that, but both are needed. Comforting people and challenging them is the work of leaders. You got to one, check in right now with yourself.

So listeners check in. Is it easier for you to challenge people, to rise up to hard circumstances and to convey that trust in their ability to do so? Or is it easier for you to comfort, to emphasize, to feel with? That’s step number one, know where you stand there. And then two, is next time somebody around you is struggling, is being challenged, check in and say, well, what is really needed here? Is it more challenge? Is it more comfort? Is it somewhere in between? Because if we don’t ask that question, we will just go to our default and that may not be what is most useful in the situation.

Irvine: Oh, I love that. What a great way of kind of summarizing what we’ve been talking about. I love that distinction between comfort and challenge. I know for me, I’m clearly in the comfort section of that, but then is someone there that’ll say, well, what’s required, I think that’s a great question, what’s required in this moment? Is a wonderful reflection for leaders. And at times it means getting comfortable perhaps with areas that we’re uncomfortable with and that’s part of growth

Bridgette: And that’s part of leadership. We wish that leadership was a very comfortable thing to practice all the time, but if we’re doing it really, really well, then we’re all often making other people a bit uncomfortable and we’re also feeling that ourselves.

Irvine: Absolutely. Well, that’s been a great discussion. Hopefully you are leaving with some food for thought and you’ve got a new practice to think about as well. And today we’ve really tried to talk about this issue of empathy, which is just all around, and hopefully help you see that it’s a little more complex than just more is better. But rather what we’ve been trying to say, yes, empathy’s important, however more is often not better, and there has to be a balance and that balance is critically important with accountability. And an important question to ask is, are you more in the comfort zone or the challenge zone, and then maybe challenge yourself when you are in a situation where perhaps you have to answer with more comfort or with more challenge. So Bridgette, thank you so much, it’s been a fascinating discussion.

Bridgette: Great to be with you.

Irvine: Yeah. And hopefully you’ve enjoy this as well. If you have, please spread the word we’re new in this podcast and we’re very certain that people could benefit from some of these ideas. So if you’ve got someone in your life who could perhaps benefit from listening to an episode, just spread the word we’d really appreciate it. And we look forward to meeting you and encountering you in the next episode.

Brudgette: Thank you Irvine. Great being with you.

Irvine: Thanks Bridgette. Appreciate it.

Bridgette: Bye-bye guys.

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