Empathy at the workplace: A weakness or a leadership virtue?



There has been a lot of literature about the importance of empathy, and its role in building true leadership. Yet, when we bring these theories into our practical life, to our daily challenges, and to the competitive world we strive in, many questions start to arise. Would an empathetic leader be perceived as emotional, or weak? Could empathy be abused by the corporate politics? Would it prevent us from making tough, but necessary decisions? Does it conflict with the urgency to deliver business results, meet sales targets, or negotiate winning deals? Would it derail our career growth or make us vulnerable? These are just some of many questions that come to one’s mind when bringing the topic of empathy into the work place.


When President Obama announced he was looking for a Supreme Court nominee who demonstrated empathy, he triggered a national debate about the word. Not only that he was fired upon by the opposition camp, but even many of his own supporters abandoned him on such a quest.

One would expect traits that fit with the conventional tick marks of an ideal Judge – intellectual, respectful, has integrity, committed, custodian of the constitution and law, but for many, bringing empathy into the equation meant allowing for emotional and weak decisions to leak into the court room.


With mounting pressure, President Obama had to drop the word and changed his criteria from “empathy” to someone with “a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.” The issue however was not about semantics, but Obama might have realized the misconceptions around the meaning of empathy, so he dropped the word, but not its essence.


So, if America did not endorse bringing empathy into the courtroom, should we bring it into the workplace?


The reason for such resistance is that in many cases the word empathy is confused with another word that rhymes; that is sympathy.

The misconception goes as follows; if empathy is sympathy, and sympathy could lead to pity, and pity might lead to emotional decisions, and emotional decisions could mean weak actions, then by transitive property, empathy at the workplace (or the court in the case of President Obama) will jeopardize the system we are in.


The confusion lays in the mix-up between empathy itself, and the potential actions that could follow. Empathy itself could never be a sign of weakness. Yet, what follows could be an action of weakness. Empathy itself could never make us vulnerable, but taking an emotional decision following it might put us in a vulnerable position.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is to recognize our emotions, to embrace them, yet to remain in charge, and not allow ourselves to be driven by them. It is to understand emotions, but not give in to emotions.

The true practice of empathy is to listen, feel, connect and truly understand others. What follows is to take all that input through our filter of values, principles, laws, and experience, then make a decision or take an action. If we succeed in doing so, empathy is thus placed at the heart of what true leadership means.


Yet, there exists one major challenge that makes empathy a rare currency at the workplace. Neuroscientists have found evidence to suggest that there is a negative correlation between power and empathy.

In a recent study under the name - Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others - researchers found that power diminishes all varieties of empathy. In the study, participants were put in the mindset of feeling either powerful or powerless. They were then asked to perform specific tasks, while a special region of their brains, called the Mirror System, was being monitored. Results showed that feeling powerless boosted the Mirror System; meaning people empathized highly. But when people were feeling powerful, the signal was significantly lower. The full study is available on the net, yet, in short, the more power we attain in our business life, the lesser empathetic we might become.


So, the true challenge is not just acknowledging the importance of empathy, but having the discipline and goodness in us to practice empathy on a daily basis despite the temptations of corporate power.


Mind you that when we talk of corporate power, we are not limiting the discussion to CEOs and upper management teams, but tapping into the full matrix of relationships between the stakeholders of a workplace. It could be a junior manager overseeing an intern, a purchasing executive dealing with a supplier, a junior marketer handling an agency, a team leader of a project group, or even an admin assistant who supervises the coffee boy.


Through my role at INNOVEST, I get to wear different hats in different contexts. In one context, I might be sitting in a board room having topline discussions with board members and shareholders on expansion strategies, and in another, I might be playing the role of a floor sales person at our retail clothing venture - BRANDZ FACTORY, while in another, I would be joining the account management team of our advertising and events venture – ROI, to meet with clients.  The interesting bit is that each of these hats comes with a significantly different “power voltage”, giving me either leverage or drawback, as I interact with different stakeholders in my different capacities.

So in one situation, I might have upper management teams adhering to my restructuring recommendations, while in another, I might be getting scolded by a shopper, for not knowing the difference between a European and a USA shoe size.

On a personal level, this major swing of powers in my daily roles has been a real eye opener and has contributed in my empathy development. The experiences I gather from my relatively powerless hats, serve as lessons to remember when I switch back to the relatively powerful ones.

When we are in a relatively powerless situation, we wish to be understood, and hope for a listening ear, and it is a heavy feeling not to find one. One can only discover the true meaning of empathy when put on the relatively powerless side of the table, and I recommend everyone to try it from time to time. It does make us better people!


So, the real battle is between us and ourselves! Are we ready to resist the temptations of power and connect better with our surrounding? Are we ready to prevent corporate power from taking away our empathy?

When we are sucked into the business world, we may be tempted to allow our business identity to take over our human identity, which disconnects us from our surroundings. We borrow the power from the titles on the business cards we carry; we use it, and in times, we unfortunately abuse it.


To build a culture of empathy, it is not enough for a corporation to promote the concept of empathy within its leadership team. It has to be a bottom up approach, where new entrants into the corporate world are trained on the pros and cons of the power they are about to assume, and the vital role empathy can play in shaping the workplace culture, accelerating business performance, and impacting our career growth.

The good news is that emerging field research does suggest that people, who begin to lose their empathy as they gain power, can be coached back to their compassionate selves. So, ball is in your court now!



About Bassam Falah:

Bassam Falah is the Founder and Managing Director of INNOVEST Middle East, a management buy-in firm that partners with Entrepreneurs during their startup stage, as well as SME management teams during their expansion phase. Prior to that, Bassam had gathered more than 15 years of corporate experience at leading blue chip global corporations with assignments across the Middle East and the Far East.




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