Why Empathy Doesn't Always Work

Last Updated May 24, 2011 2:21 PM EDT

Why Empathy Doesnt Always WorkThe way leadership gurus and executive coaches talk about empathy you'd think it's the be-all, end-all, and cure-all for leaders and their shortcomings. It's not. The reason is simple. Before empathy can even enter the picture, first, you have to understand yourself. That, to me, is the primary issue.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against empathy. Empathy's a good thing. But in a lot of cases, beating yourself or someone else over the head with a "get empathy" mantra isn't going to do any good because:

  • Some people simply don't speak that language. Sure, they can define it, but they can't do it because they're minds aren't wired that way. It's true of far more leaders and managers than most people realize.
  • Leadership or management issues involve people and interactions. The problem is you can only control at most one side of the equation, you don't know which side needs help, and if it's the other guy, can you even empathize with someone who has no empathy for you?
To surmount those obstacles and get through - either to yourself or someone else - you need to speak the language of expectations and assumptions.

You see, on some level, you have more expectations - of yourself, your boss, employees, coworkers, customers, vendors, everyone that matters - than you realize. Everyone does. Lack of awareness of faulty, unreasonable, or misaligned assumptions results in a high percentage of unnecessary workplace issues.

In other words, you expect certain things to happen or people to behave certain ways. And when they don't, since people do, in fact, have free will, that creates problems. All sorts of problems.

For example, ever have trouble connecting with your boss, a coworker, or an employee? Of course you have. Well, I have, with a former CEO. I tried putting myself in his shoes. Being empathetic, or so I thought. But that didn't work - on his end, my end, or both, for that matter - I'll never know which.

What did work was realizing that I expected him to manage me the way I managed others. Don't say "duh." So many people do that without even realizing it. For whatever reason - maybe I found it convenient to just write him off as a micromanager and throw up my hands in frustration, who knows - that's what happened.

Once I realized that I shouldn't expect him to be anything but himself, I became open to giving him what he needed. And once I did that, he became more comfortable and we settled into a good relationship.

Now, I know some people will lump that and everything else under the "empathy" banner, but that's not how it works in a practical sense. Instead of putting myself in his shoes, I really needed to think of myself and my own expectations. Any good shrink will tell you that the solution for narcissism is for the narcissist to first focus on himself. Ironic, isn't it?

Anyway, here are 5 Tips for Improving Workplace Relationships that don't involve empathy and work regardless of which side of the equation you're on.

  1. Before you put yourself in his shoes, try your own on for size. Ever catch yourself saying or thinking, "I can't figure him out" or "what the hell is he thinking?" The question to ask yourself is what the hell are you thinking? Seriously.
  2. Challenge your own goals, assumptions, and expectations. Chances are you walked into an interaction or a meeting with certain goals or expectations. When it didn't go as planned, your reaction likely contributed to the issue or conflict. The problem is with the setup, i.e. the expectation, not the interaction, per se. Think about it.
  3. Don't assume anyone thinks, feels, or behaves as you do. Ever hear yourself say, "why would anyone ____ (fill in the blank: act, manage, run a business, dress, raise a kid) that way?" You can't ask a more narcissistic question. Why in the world would they not? They're not like you, and assuming they are is dehumanizing and childish.
  4. Don't beat yourself - or anyone else - up. Stay positive. This is not a personal failing on either your part or anyone else's, for that matter. If you build things up in your head you'll only make matters worse. Besides, you'll never achieve any kind of perspective when you're angry, upset, or panicky.
  5. If it's a chronic problem, seek objective counsel. Seriously, if this sort of thing happens to you a lot, you're probably not even aware that you're setting yourself up for all kinds of problems by setting expectations for interactions that aren't reasonable. Get some help; it'll improve your relationship immensely.
The bottom line is this. The drumbeat of a leadership fad du jour drowns out the nuances that make it work. To have empathy, you first have to know yourself. If you don't do part one, you'll never get to part two. For some, that takes a lifetime.

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