Is empathy part of your leadership conversation? If not, it probably should be. It is, after all, expected that ‘empathy’ will be the new ‘authenticity’.

Ford’s ‘lived’ experience 

Remember when the Ford Motor Company sent its (mostly male) designers and engineers to work in an Empathy Belly? It resembled something akin to a telly tubby tummy strapped around your torso, complete with vibrating sensors to simulate the feeling of your incubating offspring giving you an occasional swift left foot to the womb, along with other (less endearing) symptoms of pregnancy. Then they created an “Age’ suit with creaky bones and limited reach – all in the noble pursuit of giving their car makers ‘lived’ experiences of their customers to improve the product offering.

Whether those experiments actually improved their cars is inconclusive – but the engineers said the opportunity to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ was hugely beneficial. Tech has come a long way since then, with VR the way of the future for empathy training. (Can empathy be trained or only triggered? That’s a whole other question – and the jury is still out.)

Where empathy ‘sits’ in the brain – we simply don’t know and to make it more interesting there is hard scientific data supporting two different spots – but we know that it’s a good thing to have. The ability to step out of your own self and tune into the way another person experiences the world, cognitively, emotionally, compassionately – that’s got to be a pathway to a better future of work.

Now, we’re all human beings. It’s natural to put someone else’s feelings before your own at times – but surely not all the time.

Can you be too empathetic?

This week on HumanPulse we asked our mwah.community: ‘Can you be too empathetic?’

Yes.

When it means you don’t act in your best interest when you should.

When you put your empathy for an individual too far in front of what’s best for the collective or the organisation.

When it allows unaligned behaviours to continue.

When you have nothing left in the tank.

When you are so exhausted (empathy fatigue) that you don’t know what you need.

A friend’s story 

She works for a big corporate in an office tower in the city. The culture is dysfunctional and the team she works in is unaligned. She’s the glue that keeps everyone getting along. It’s exhausting.

Recently, her colleague experienced a major medical event while sitting at her desk at work. My friend was first responder. She called 000, followed the medics’ instructions until they arrived, then saw her into the ambulance (unconscious on a stretcher) – while all around her, people (their own team) fixed their eyes on their screens and pretended nothing was happening. My friend spent the evening fielding calls from her colleague’s concerned family members, answering questions from the company’s legal team, and trying to fathom the radio silence from everyone else in her team. Including her manager. Oh, and it was her birthday. As she’d arrived home her young children gave her pink cake and squealed ‘Have you had a great day mum!’. ‘Yes! The best!’ she beamed. Dinner was cancelled. That night she barely slept.

The next day she called me from a meeting room at work and told me the story.

I asked her what the company was doing to make sure she was ok. The question surprised her. ‘Nothing’. I asked her what she needed. A long pause, then, ‘I don’t know’. ‘I don’t know what I need.’ Then a longer pause, ‘except a new job.’

There are so many things wrong in this story.

Focus on empathy 

My friend is highly empathic. She’s also a very smart woman, super intelligent, independent, incredibly capable. This is a woman who knows exactly what her kids, husband, parents, nieces, nephews, boss, team need at any minute of the day – and how to help them get it. But suddenly she had nothing left in the tank. Zero. She didn’t even know what she needed.

Not the simple, accessible things that she could do at that moment to release the pressure and refuel. Only the big glaring thing – a new job – that may (but probably not) ultimately solve the problem.

This is empathy fatigue at a pretty extreme level, but lots of us will recognise the symptoms. So, learning how to avoid the excesses of empathy – frustration, exhaustion, resentment, losing out to others, having nothing left for your loved ones, losing sight of your needs, lapses in ethical judgement, even gaslighting – is really important.

How you can find the right balance

Consider these things to find the right balance for you between an empathic response (especially when it’s in your nature) and a rational, reasoned response.

Step away (gently) from the people who are depleting you – offer ‘care’ instead of feeling compelled to give a ‘solution’. You want to ‘feel’ with another person but you don’t want to stay there.

Hone in on your own feelings and needs – I’m tired, I need space, I resent that these people are sucking the life out of me, I have nothing left to give my kid/partner/parents, I don’t have to save everyone.

Act on those needs – ‘I really need to take myself out of this environment by doing the thing [swim in the ocean, go bushwalking, play piano, meditate] that restores me.’

Call yourself out early – recognise when you’re slipping back into empathy overload and give yourself a good talking to (with just the right amount of empathy of course).

In all likelihood, my friend will leave her job – and her company will be the loser. And she’ll benefit because this has been a real catalyst for her to reframe the way she leads with empathy.

At mwah. we’re doing a lot of work on empathy – from VR to academics and methodology, and practical application. If you’d like to find out more, let us know! [email protected]

If you enjoyed reading this, here are some links you might find interesting.

The boffins at Harvard have developed a way to measure organisational empathy and have set up a Global Empathy Index:

 https://hbr.org/2016/12/the-most-and-least-empathetic-companies-2016

Writer Roman Krznaric has created an online Empathy Museum, supported by a series of participatory arts projects around the world that invite you to ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’:

http://www.empathymuseum.com/#whoweare

Article written by Rosie Cartwright

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