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The Limits of Empathy

The Leader's 3-2-1: Three Insights, Two Questions, One Statistic.


Topic: Limits of Empathy


Even leadership coaches have their share of leadership failures. In my first leadership role, one team member was moved to another team because I failed to lead them effectively. Here's why: I had a bad habit as an emerging leader of over-using empathy, or having compassion without limits. At the time, I didn't see that being compassionate didn't mean I shouldn't also provide critical feedback, uphold clear expectations and set boundaries. Three essential skills required to be an effective leader. Here's what I learned (the hard way): To be empathetic doesn't mean we won't ever upset people in difficult moments. Empathy is how we show up to those moments. Empathy is a stance, a form of curiosity, and a skill of perspective-taking. Learn from my failure and identify signs you may be over-using empathy in 3-2-1:

Three Insights

Avoidance of Critical Feedback

Empathy goes too far when you avoid giving critical feedback for fear of hurting feelings, being disliked or upsetting the other person. Their responses, emotions or reactions are not yours to own. Your duty is to deliver the message clearly and kindly, create a safe space to process the message, and demonstrate care and support by circling back to the conversation after the news has settled. Grounding: Is the feedback accurate? Will the feedback support growth? Are the stakes for failure to change behavior high? Is the feedback generous in spirit?

Hesitance to Uphold Expectations

Empathy goes too far when kindness merges into people-pleasing, conflict-avoiding and approval-seeking instead of upholding standards and expectations. Your duty is to guide and develop the team to their goals, which may require periodic discomfort. Reality: sometimes people will be grumpy with you…and that's okay. Your role is to steer the ship, and at times there will be rough waters. Grounding: What is my duty as a leader? What is on the other side of their discomfort? Will their discomfort take them closer to their/our goals?


Blurring Boundaries in Relationships

Empathy goes too far when it blurs boundaries in the leader-to-employee relationship. Leaders are human: you will (and should) develop personal affection, care and compassion for those you lead. Yet, leaders must maintain clarity of their role in the context of others. Personal feelings cannot be placed before your duty as a leader to do the hard, right things that develop the team. Grounding: What limits in my work relationships will preserve clarity in my role as leader? What will I do to uphold and maintain those limits?

TWo questions

When giving critical feedback or delivering difficult news…what is my responsibility? Your responsibility is to be clear, kind and supportive…not to manage the reactions of others. Build emotional stamina to be calm in that discomfort. Does this moment require something greater than an expectation, boundary or feedback? Empathy goes too far when it becomes an excuse and enablement for toxic behavior. Bullying, bias and discrimination always require discipline.


One Statistic

38% Remember to balance the limits of empathy with the power of empathy: Kristi Hedges, an executive coach, speaker and author of the Inspiration Code, conducted a Harris Poll on the communication behaviors of the most inspirational people. The poll found that 38% of respondents said "making the effort to understand where I was coming from" was an inspirational communication behavior. -The Inspiration Code: How the Best Leaders Energize People Every Day



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