Empathy - friend or foe in management?

Emma Pryke
Emma Pryke 5 min

"Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” – Alfred Adler

Would you call yourself an empath? Many do and it’s seen as a wonderful strength - you’re emotionally able to connect with others and put yourself in their shoes. You care, you want to help.

All traits of a great people manager, right?

Imagine a scenario where you hold a weekly check-in with your team. You encourage them to be vulnerable about their emotional state both inside work and outside. One shares some personal news that is upsetting and has affected their work performance. Another is struggling with the stress of their workload, they feel anxious and can’t cope. Another is caring for a sick relative. And so on, because the world doesn’t stop turning for the eight hours or so we’re in work mode.

At the end of your day, you’ve taken on the emotional load of your team which, as an empath, you’ve undoubtedly absorbed like a sponge, and led you to feel profoundly sad. You want to be there for them but you also need to ensure you’re meeting the targets set by your line manager. Now you understand what’s happening for them personally, how are you expected to put additional pressure on them to perform at a higher level? Surely that would be unsympathetic?

three people working

Back to the idea of feedback. It sounds simple - someone completes a task and you tell them what you think.

Right? Well yeah in a way. But humans are sensitive beings. Putting forward an opinion or piece of work can feel personal, and to have a negative reaction can have a lasting impact. Adding a bit of well thought cushioning can make all the difference.

And if I had felt this way at work, I had a sneaking suspicion that others in the MMT team might have had a similar experience over the years. I was right - here’s a few choice phrases that had been uttered by managers’ past and a note on how we’d suggest it was rephrased - avoiding potential conflict and disheartenment. 

Empathy, like any strength is useful until it isn’t.

By this point, you’re overwhelmed, pulled in different directions and often dealing with your own ups and downs that life tends to throw at us.

So, we could argue that being an empath isn’t the desirable strength we once thought it was. However, like most things in life, it comes down to balance.

‘Empathy can be a leadership superpower, but like with any strength, if used too much, in the wrong place or at the wrong time, it goes into overdrive and can have a negative impact. For example, you might take on people’s challenges as your own and lose your objectivity around a situation.

In these moments, the best thing to do is try to balance your empathy overdrive with one of your other strengths. We use brilliant tools like Strengthscope or Enneagram to help people understand these areas better.’ - Hasan Khair, Coach and CEO of Maverick Managers Toolkit

So, how can we balance our natural feelings of empathy with more grounding strengths to keep us balanced and avoid hosting the emotional load of our team in our heads rent-free?

Set clear boundaries

It’s easy to fall into becoming friendly with your direct reports and whilst this might feel great at the pub on a Friday, the lines between work and personal lives can become blurry. By establishing clear boundaries that you feel comfortable with, you’ll be more likely to avoid taking work-related stress home and be able to say no when necessary.

Set clear boundaries

Delegate the load

Empaths will often shoulder the load for others when they know they have plenty on their plate emotionally. This might be great for the person being managed but can lead to burnout for the manager due to taking on too much responsibility. Learning to delegate is crucial to keeping a healthy balance at work and allows other team members to share the workload.

delegating hand

Take time for self-reflection

It might sound simple, but when life gets busy it’s often our own emotional well-being that comes bottom of the pile. Empaths are at risk of putting others before themselves so taking the time out to self-reflect and check in on your own emotions and energy levels will help to identify patterns of stress and address them proactively.

Develop your management skills

We get it, sometimes management can feel like you’re firefighting and there’s little time to pause. By scheduling pockets of time to build and develop your skills you’ll be surprised at how much time you can glean back. As Hasan mentions above, using tools to understand your strengths can help to develop the skills you need to balance things out and think more pragmatically about difficult situations.

Build a support system

We’re not meant to be alone in management. It’s a tough role and it’s important to cultivate a strong support network of friends, family and colleagues who understand and respect your empathetic nature. Just as a therapist will have therapy to process their experiences with clients, managers need to be able to share experiences with someone they trust to keep things confidential.

Management is hard, but we’ve got your back. We’re running regular online management hangouts online to give managers a safe space to share their struggles and talk openly about all aspects of their role - the good, bad, and ugly. Keep an eye out via our LinkedIn.

Key Takeaway

Empathy is a valuable trait in management, but it needs to be balanced with clear boundaries, delegation, self-care, skill development, and a support system to be effective without causing burnout.

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