The Possibilities and Perils of Empathic Leadership

Empathy has been recognized as a critical quality for today’s leaders. And yet, for many it is still a struggle. Find out how you can practice empathy in the workplace with grace and strength.

It was the day after I suffered my greatest defeat.

I was a senior at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi, and had just lost the election for President of the Students Union. This was a big deal at St. Stephens, like in many Indian colleges. Several months of preparation, strategizing and campaigning had gone into it. My opponent Rajit and I had visited every professor’s class on campus over four weeks, canvassing for support. The professors would step aside, allowing us to make our pitch to the class, borrowing from their class time. A public debate was held between Rajit and me in the college auditorium, attended by half the student population. Everyone on my team expected us to win. We had the wind behind our sails.

Then came election day, and around 70% of the students came and voted. I lost by 14 votes – a hair’s breadth. Of all the moments in the aftermath of my loss, there are three that stand out.

The first is how I went over to the other side of campus to congratulate my opponent and his people and to give him a hug. He and his supporters received me and mine warmly. This was a college tradition – to be humble in victory, gracious in defeat.

Later that night, in my dorm room, after the celebratory din of the winning side had quietened and my supporters after consoling me and each other had retired for the night, I let myself cry. Perhaps this, too, was a private college tradition for the losing candidate! You were so close to winning, Hitendra! You’ve let your supporters down. Now you won’t be able to reward them with leadership positions in the Students’ Union, or pursue your agenda for the school. Life isn’t fair. People will now forever see you as the one who lost. This is the second thing that has stayed with me from that moment.

And the third distinctive memory is a brief experience I had the morning after election day. I was determined to show the college that “I’m still standing”. I walked out of my dorm to get to the classroom for my Modern Algebra class, putting up a brave smile and saying “good morning” to the scores of students and professors who offered commiserating glances to me from afar. As I walked up the stairs, one freshman, Shikha, walked up to me and then spoke in a calm, casual voice, “Feeling a bit low today?” I broke into a smile for a brief moment. She smiled affirmatively, nodded, then turned in the opposite direction to walk over to her class as I walked to mine.

I’ve always wondered why this episode, among the swirl of experiences I had in that epic moment of defeat, has stuck with me – even today, decades later. I’ll come to that in a couple of minutes, but before I do, let’s acknowledge one thing – what Shikha was doing in that interaction was offering me empathy.

Empathy! It’s the virtue-du-jour in management circles in 2021. In a recent survey of 150 CEOs, over 80% of them recognized empathy as a key to success. Another survey reveals that 84% of CEOs and 70% of employees stated that empathy drives better business outcomes. And another shows that employees who feel empathized with by their managers and leaders report that they are more innovative, engaged, loyal and capable of juggling their personal, work and family commitments.

In one study, 170 publicly traded companies were assessed for how empathetic they were in their culture and with their customers. The top-10 companies on empathy did twice as well on the stock market as the bottom-10.

And yet, empathy is not an easy quality to master at work. 7 out of 10 CEOs say they fear they will be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace. Only half of CEOs believe there is sufficient empathy in their workplace – and only a quarter of their workforce would agree with this.

Why is empathy so hard to practice at work?

Empathy invites us to go beyond the logic of a conversation to the feelings that lie behind it. It makes us recognize that there’s an inner reality to people that we may sense but may not always see. For long, companies have operated under the assumption that an employee’s inner self is their own business, for them to deal with on their own. They expect their people to engage in the right outer behavior; as long as you’re saying and doing the right things, nodding your heads and smiling at the right moments, you’re a team player.

But this one-dimensional view of our employees is no longer working. People have feelings. They have their own lived reality which is different from yours and mine. They have inner hungers that a good bonus or a plush office won’t satisfy. They can put on a brave front for you, but sometimes, from within, they can be hurting, or may be unhappy with what you just said or did.

In other words, people are human.

So with well-intentioned enthusiasm, many companies have started to encourage managers to practice greater empathy with their people. But for many, this is a struggle. 70 percent of CEOs say it’s hard for them to consistently demonstrate empathy in their working life. That’s because empathy isn’t just a switch you turn on. It’s a discipline to be cultivated mindfully.

The essence of empathy is the recognition that you are not separate – that the people you work with, partner with and serve are all part of an interconnected and interdependent world that you’re taking from and giving to. When we expand our sense of self this way, taking joy in others’ joy and finding success in others’ success, then empathy becomes a natural part of who we are – not a corporate imperative we need to respect.

But if we just stop there, we’ll be in trouble – big trouble. Because empathy is a double-edged sword. Science today is proving what some of us may have already borne painful witness to – when you share in other people’s emotional burden, you can burn yourself out and become paralyzed from finding creative solutions to problems. You may lose perspective when you get all focused on alleviating the pain of the person or group you are empathizing with, compromising other legitimate stakeholders and priorities. You might also engage in unethical and immoral behavior – like stealing or lying – under the rationale of helping the people you are empathizing and caring for.

The reason empathy fails us in these ways is not because it’s a bad idea; it’s because it needs to be practiced the right way. Here is what the recent science on empathy is showing are three ways we can empathize with grace and strength:

  1. While seeking to understand the other person, also take a big-picture view – seek to keep in mind the needs of the team, the organization, the mission, and even this person’s future-self versus just their current-self. Strive to extend your empathy to serve the collective good, not simply the person in front of you.
  2. Recognize the capacity people possess to grow. Empathize with the individual on your team who is grappling with a challenge, but also inspire them to resiliently draw on their inner reserves to overcome it.
  3. Engage mostly in cognitive empathy – where you seek to understand people’s inner worlds – and much less so in emotional empathy – where their feelings become your feelings. Strive to stay anchored in your peace within – keep this peace secure in an inner castle that no emotional burden or challenge can disturb.

When she encountered me that morning after my election loss, Shikha didn’t try to stay at a safe distance from me like what others were doing; she reached out to connect with me and show me that she understood how dejected I must be feeling on the inside. And yet, her calm tone was an assurance to me that my circumstances weren’t permanent, that “this, too, shall pass.” Her smile showed that in empathizing with me she wasn’t going to lose her own happiness. Her nod as we were parting was a way to assure me I had the strength to move on. And the resolute way she then turned away at the top of the stairs allowed her to not let us sacrifice our other goal, of getting to our classes on time.

I made the most I could from the defeat, encouraging my campaign team to support and work for Rajit and his Students Union. I poured the time I would have invested in the President’s role to instead focus on academics and on my goal of getting into a US Ph.D. program. I even rebuilt my equation with Rajit, for we had had a fond connection before we became political rivals. Later that year, he invited me to emcee the college-wide farewell party for the graduating class. Recently, he and I had a heartwarming reconnection after thirty years.

I haven’t been much in touch with Shikha since that time, though I know she catapulted to national fame that same year when she was crowned Miss India. Her action that day had revealed to me her heart of gold, so this crown was well deserved. Because what could be more majestic than to make an empathic connection with those in our midst who are quietly in need of a lift?