Why Aren’t We Promoting Empathetic Leaders?29 May 2018 / By Jayne Thompson Clinically Reviewed by Steven Melendy, PsyD. on May 29, 2018
Leaders have the most challenging of jobs: leading a team of diverse employees to get behind a single vision and work collaboratively to achieve a common goal.
Not all leaders can do this effectively however.
Why do some leaders succeed while others fail?
One answer is empathy; the ability to see the world through the eyes of colleagues and customers. More and more studies show that empathic leaders bring a high economic added-value for their businesses. Some even suggest that empathy is the critical driver for leadership performance, accounting for 80 to 90 percent of the skills that leaders need to succeed.
Empathy on the Corporate Menu
Empathy has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, and it's typically associated with progressive and innovative companies who feel their customers' pain and use it to create highly profitable solutions for the business. When you consider the skills associated with a proficiency in empathy - deep listening, suspended judgment, collaboration, identifying with people's hopes and struggles, information-sharing, the ability to coach and engage - it's easy to see how empathy is an essential ingredient for creating an emotional relationship with customers.
In turn, this builds trust. And all the evidence suggests that high-trust organizations outperform low-trust organizations in sales and profits.
What we're saying here is that empathy is not just a fluffy, looks-good-in-the-corporate-brochure soft skill - it's the pathway to profit. Why then, is it given so little room to blossom?
Systemizers Versus Empathizers
The main reason is that, historically, corporations have expressed a general preference for promoting leaders of the classic "hero" variety. Time and again, we see that XSTJs and XNTJs are the types most likely to seize the top business roles. That means that a large proportion of executives are anti-empathic "systemizers." Empathizing-systemizing theory, a hypothesis of British psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, suggests that systemizers types are hard-wired to be efficient, assertive and fearless. There's no doubt that these leaders produce results. But, for these types, feelings are subordinate to intellect.
Empathizers sit at the opposite end of the spectrum. The folk intuitively understand how people are feeling and how to treat people with sensitivity and care. While it's dangerous to stereotype, there are certain personality types who, at least in theory, have an innate ability to connect powerfully to the emotions of others. Feelers typically exhibit more empathetic traits than Thinkers, although ENTPs and ISTPs are (perhaps surprisingly) very capable of empathy. Some NF types are empathetic to the point where it becomes a problem for them, as they take on others' problems as if they were their own.
When you look at leadership data, however, clearly there is an underrepresentation of Feeling and especially Feeling-Perceiving preferences among leaders and managers. Despite the drive towards empathy, most organizations are still structured in a way that favors planned, logical and decisive behaviors.
What we're left with then, is an empathy paradox. As much as the business world talks about shaping a new standard of leadership - one that recognizes one's own emotions and those of others to motivate and to empathize - most do little to promote the very people who have the talent to deploy their natural empathy skills for the good of the organization.
Can Empathy Be Taught?
At this point it's worth stepping back to recognize that empathy is a teachable skill. Every personality type has some degree of empathy and that with the right training and enough effort, empathy skills can be honed and improved. By this analysis, there should be no problem with promoting strong systemizers to leadership roles since empathy is something they can learn.
Nonetheless, there are gradations of empathy. Social psychologist Mark Davis suggests that empathy is not one skill, but three:
Cognitive empathy, or perspective-taking. This is the ability to see things from another's point of view. An ENTP or ENTJ, for example, is driven to logically understand a situation. As a result, she becomes very adept at putting herself in another's shoes. Compassion may be lacking, but the ENTX can certainly understand what is driving other individuals.
Personal distress. This is literally feeling someone's emotions when they are in distress. Some XNFJ types report feeling empathy so strongly they sacrifice their own needs for others. This type of "empathy run wild" is rarely reported as a positive trait. Studies of nurses, for example, show that too much empathy leads to compassion fatigue, which in turn leads to such adverse outcomes as impaired performance, burnout and absenteeism.
Empathic concern. This is what we strive for when we talk about empathy - the ability to connect with someone's emotional state and show appropriate care. People with high levels of empathetic concern genuinely care for others and are in tune to the needs and desires of those around them, but not to the point of personal distress. No easy feat!
What this analysis tells us, is that not all empathy is created equal. More significantly, when we take our EXTJ leaders and sharpen their empathy skills, what we're actually improving is their cognitive empathy - and we can train robots to do that! What we're not creating, are the genuine feelings of compassion or concern that go beyond a logical understanding of the situation; what some psychologists call other-orientation. We know that you're born with or without a tendency towards personal distress. The jury's out whether empathetic concern is also an innate trait that cannot effectively be taught.
Regardless of the quality of their empathy, striving to be more empathetic has a major downside for low-empathy types - its demands are exhausting. We all know that Introverts need periodic relief from extraverted and high-energy work like networking events. The same is true of empathy. Expecting strong systemizers to empathize and listen to coworkers' problems and worries every day will leave them feeling so emotionally drained they have less capacity to do what they do best - systemize. For the overburdened systemizing leader, increasing the use of cognitive empathy skills can be a zero-sum game.
I'm not saying that teaching empathy skills is bad. Quite the opposite. Cognitive empathy is what allows systemizing leaders to temper their systems-thinking and learn to perceive the welfare needs of others.
But surely, if empathy is so important, it makes more sense to tap into the innate empathetic concern skills that come naturally to some personality types, rather than to shoehorn it onto your systemizers?
It's Time to Put the Spotlight on Empathizers
What personality type makes the best leader? Obvious, we cannot answer that question. Every type has its own strengths, weaknesses and leadership potential.
What we can ask, is why are so many businesses failing to promote or select leaders who have the natural empathy advantage? One answer is that businesses have no other point of reference than the old model. There are remarkably few examples of businesses who successfully integrate empathy into their day-to-day culture and create places where empathizers can thrive. Until empathy goes mainstream, the old archetypes will prevail.
A second problem is with the perception of empathy itself. Rather than see it is a way to build trust and loyalty with customers - a profit driver - empathy is still seen by many as "anti-logic." There's still an attitude that empathy skills are a bolt-on - a fluffy and (dare I say it) feminine addition to the main priority, which is making cool-headed business decisions.
These perceptions may seem intractable, but as a business you can mitigate them. It starts with embracing your employees' unique hard-wiring and realizing that everyone is bigger than their mere four letters when it comes to supporting good leadership. There's no reason why Feelers cannot be tough as nails while working for the highest possible good of customers and stakeholders. There's also no reason why leadership roles cannot be split, such that some people can focus primarily on customers and caring responsibilities, for example, while others focus on the numbers.
In reality, systemizing and empathizing are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Just because someone empathizes well does not mean they don't also systemize well. If empathy can be taught to systemizers, then surely the opposite is also true. It's only when we embrace that, that empathizers will find a voice at the leadership table.