Emotional Intelligence and Empathy: Finding the Right Mix

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An emphasis in the leadership literature over recent years has been on the importance of Emotional Intelligence—and for good reason. Today’s CEO’s and business owners have a better understanding than generations past of the significant impact of emotional wellbeing on the job satisfaction and productivity of their employees.  Empathy—the ability to understand and share the feelings of another—is intrinsically tied to emotional intelligence. Ask anyone who has been through an Emotional Intelligence (EI) assessment and training to sum up what being an “emotionally intelligent” leader means in a single word, and nine out of 10 times you’ll hear “being empathic” It stands to reason then, that the best leaders who demonstrate the highest level of emotional intelligence are the most empathetic. My own observations as a family business consultant and leadership coach, however, tell a different story. One that might surprise you, and one that definitely surprised me.  My findings as an administrator of the EI assessment reveal something very interesting and unexpected.

Over time, I have seen an undeniable trend in my EI assessments when it comes to empathy. Namely, that the most capable and successful leaders I have worked with tend to score lower on empathy as compared to other measured categories like stress tolerance, self-regard and emotional expression.  My initial shock at these results, however, began to fade as I thought more deeply about the concept of “empathy.” Empathy isn’t black and white. It can’t be truly quantified scientifically. It is, in a sense, semantics. Let’s take a closer look at the definition: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. When I look at this definition, two words stick out: understand and share. In my experience, understanding the feelings of another is undoubtedly important to emotional intelligence and great leadership. But is sharing those feelings important as well? This is where I believe the chasm between emotional intelligence and empathy exists. When it comes to business leadership, empathy is a spectrum—too much or too little can be a bad thing.

The Empathy Spectrum

It’s no secret that leaders with little to no empathy are generally not successful. But what about those with too much empathy? Leadership is hard. It requires hard and often unpleasant decisions like firing employees, not relenting to unreasonable requests of your clients or, in the case of family businesses, having difficult conversations with family members. Leaders with too much empathy can have a hard time making these difficult decisions, and in some cases, allow themselves to be taken advantage of. Sometimes, the unpopular decision is the one that’s best for the business. Leaders are charged with the fiduciary responsibility and caring for wellbeing of the business, its clients and employees. Above all else they must have the fortitude to make these unpopular or difficult decisions when necessary.   On the other end of the spectrum, too little empathy makes for uninspiring, unrelatable—and ultimately, unsuccessful leaders.

Striking a Balance

When I surveyed successful leaders that scored lower on empathy about what made them successful and how they saw their own empathy, the main theme was that they gained the trust of their team through integrity. Trust, perhaps more than anything, is the key for great leadership. Another key to great leadership—especially as it relates to the empathy spectrum—is knowing yourself. Leaders who identify their own shortcomings (be they real or perceived) can engender trust and even empathy through self-awareness that leads to action. Put simply, know yourself and what you can tolerate, then act accordingly.

One the most important critical behavioral principles is “feelings are harder to change than behavior.” If you wait to feel differently, you’ll be waiting for a long time.  If you change your behavior, however, you will likely experience reinforcement for that behavior, making it more likely that you will engage in that behavior again. For leaders, this can close the perceived empathy gap, and help you become a trusted and successful leader if your business. There are a few basic behaviors you can implement to help ensure your success:

  • Provide “Answers to the Test”

Employees won’t guess at what leaders want. Communicate to employees what is expected of them not only in performance, but in the way they approach their jobs and each other.

  • Ask the Right Questions

Learn what your employees expect of you personally (compassion, flexibility) and professionally (how will you handle certain situations).

  • Create Rules for Managing Conflict

Creating a clear set of rules on how to manage conflict will help diffuse tense situations and help employees and management become more inclusive through a measured and empathetic approach to conflict.

  • Lead by Example

Trust your instinct, be yourself and whenever possible, be kind!

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