Empathetic communication is at the top of the agenda for any leadership communication coaching session, and with good reason. The Edelman Trust Barometer reports that 83% of employees are afraid of losing their job to a shifting world of work, and leaders are trying harder than ever to understand employee fears and stressors brought on by the pandemic. Or search for “empathy and leaders” on Amazon and watch how almost 600 book titles show up in the search results.
This focus on empathy makes sense. Empathy is being able to experience the world as someone else does. If leaders can better feel and understand their people’s concerns, frustrations, uncertainties, and anxieties, then they are likely to be more motivated to help solve those issues. Empathy is like a spotlight, focusing attention and resources on those who need it most.
But empathy can also lead us astray. Here are three empathy traps to watch out for at work — and how to avoid them.
Trap #1: It’s easier to empathize with those who are similar to us
Similarity bias is one of the most commonly discussed hiring biases. It explains how we prefer things and people who are similar to us — and why the dissimilar can be frightening. For example, the scariest feature of the spider isn’t that some are harmful, but rather their “legginess.” They have eight legs, rather than the familiar two or four. This fear of difference has clear impacts on diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts. In a hiring situation, it’s easy to see how managers subconsciously hire people who are similar to them.
But this bias also impacts who we empathize with. Research shows it is easier to empathize with those who are similar to us. Which makes sense — it’s easier to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes if you wear the same shoe size.
Leaders must make a concerted effort to give time and attention to those on the team who are different from them. Broadening the idea of “different” can help make sure no one is overlooked. Differences can be along the lines of what we traditionally think of in D&I: education, income, age, gender. But it can also be experience, geographic location, favorite sports teams, whether one is a vegetarian or eats meat — the list is broader than many think.
Trap #2: Using focus groups to practice empathy
One of the most common ways to get insights into how people feel at work is the tried-and-true focus group. But if you are using it as a way to practice empathy, don’t. There are limits to how many people we can empathize with at once, and it turns out that that number is quite small. We cannot empathize with more than one or two people at a time. As the number of people we are asked to feel compassion for rises, our ability to do so simultaneously lowers. Therefore, avoid using focus groups as an opportunity to practice empathy.
Instead, what is more effective for soliciting feedback around delicate topics is a one-to-one conversation. This creates a safe space for the employee and allows managers to practice listening. As empathy starts with curiosity, managers should come prepared with thoughtful questions to open up the conversation. Harvard Business Review outlines questions to use to talk about diversity, which happen to also work brilliantly for improving empathy. One such question that is extremely powerful is: “What are the biggest barriers to your success right now, and what role can I play in helping to remove them?’
Trap #3: Promoting the needs of one over the greater good
Paul Bloom’s excellent book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, makes a compelling argument that in some situations, empathy can lead us to make a decision that doesn’t benefit the greater good. Why? Because the emotion empathy elicits is often more powerful than fairness in many situations. One example Bloom uses in the book to demonstrate this is how the city of Dallas spent $27,000 to care for a dog whose owner contracted Ebola — money that could have been much better spent elsewhere.
Originally posted on Forbes