The Three Empathies

Empathy is often only thought of as a one-way street.

As leaders, you hear a lot about the utility of empathy in your everyday approach. There’s a significant amount of power in increasing empathy as leaders and orienting towards the needs of others. It’s a critical skill, no doubt! However, it’s incomplete to only think of empathy in this limited aspect. I believe there are three empathies, and all three are critical for a well-rounded leadership approach. 

The three empathies are: empathy for others, empathy for the organization, and empathy for self. 

Empathy for others is the traditional approach to empathy. Individuals get into the feelings of others so they can adapt their approaches, meet and anticipate the needs of team members and customers, and respond to them with compassion. For leaders who cultivate this skill, it quickly becomes a superpower, helping them deploy adaptive leadership models and building a solid reputation as an understanding source of guidance and a safe place for courageous conversations.

Empathy is not mutually exclusive to accountability, however, and that brings us to the second empathy: empathy for the organization. In group and individual executive coaching, this is often the balance that’s at the crux of the challenge. Individual team members feel a certain way or want certain things, and that might be at cross-purposes with the organization. It’s tempting for leaders – in a well-intentioned approach of displaying empathy, of course – to go so far in responding to the individual needs of a team member that the organization itself suffers or experiences additional challenges because of this. That line between being a caring, supportive leader and going too far can be a tricky one to walk. Remembering that our actions as leaders must ALSO display organizational empathy can be a good reminder to balance both sides of that equation.  

The third empathy is empathy for oneself. This must also be integrated along with empathy for others and empathy for organization. The term “servant leadership” first became popularized in the 1970s and has grown into entire leadership movements based on this philosophy. The challenge (aside from problematic terminology) is that many leaders today have taken this idea so far as to conflate it with self-sacrifice, and it’s part of what is leading to major rates of burnout. It leads to individuals taking on too much responsibility, adding work to their plates relentlessly, and deploying well-meaning efforts to serve the organization or team members that don’t take into account the leader’s own wellness. 

For a well-rounded leadership approach, it’s critical that each of the three empathies be integrated and considered. Doing so will help leaders have a clear line of sight when troubleshooting problems and a set of guidelines for decision-making when situations are complex and challenging. It will also help them maintain a personal orientation to wellness so they can continue to serve and operate within their highest capabilities. 

- Nicole



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