Education

Empathy: Too much can kill your career

Many management books talk about the importance of developing a strong sense of empathy. Executive and leadership coach John M. McKee says it can also kill your career.

I can understand why he's not satisfied with this."

"He's had a lot of health problems, we should cut him some slack."

"Nobody could have anticipated this. We'll give her more staff to help out."

The above are statements made by individuals with a common career "problem" -- each of them have too much empathy for their own good.

Having too much empathy can be a real problem. It can be used against you, and cause your career to flounder. Other individuals, even knuckleheads in some cases, may move up the ladder at your expense.

The risks of too much empathy

Hold it!  Isn't it supposed to be good to have a sense of empathy?

Isn't the ability to see things from the perspective of others supposed to be a good thing?

Yes and no.  It's true that good leaders often have the ability to see things from the perspective of others, and as a result they’ll often make better decisions affecting the team as a result.  However, at the same time, it can negatively impact one’s career. That's because it can prevent you from being a clear-headed and tough-minded manager when those traits are required in certain situations.  A strong sense of empathy can hold you back when difficult action is required because you may “feel” too much for the other person. Here are a couple of real life corporate situations to explain what I mean:

Case Study 1 - A director in a large manufacturing company was getting screwed by a peer  who was going out of his way to tell their VP about every mistake or problem created by her group. My client was cranky. She wanted some help dealing with the career-first-at-any-cost guy who was bad-mouthing her. However, each time we created a plan to help her show the boss what was really going on, she backed-off. "I can understand why he felt that way," she told me after her peer had told the veep again that she'd "screwed up." "He's only trying to look after his needs and doesn't understand that a good relationship with me and my group can make us both more successful."

That may have been the case.  Or maybe he was just dumb even. But regardless of the reason, after hearing about all the problems her team was apparently causing, the boss finally decided to take her out. The jerk had won. Not surprisingly, while telling me she'd just been let go, she actually defended the vice president's decision to fire her!

Case Study 2 - A vice president in the media business (not an industry renowned for being overly collegial) was facing ongoing problems with a project that had the eyes of the company upon it. Due to some bad setup work done years ago, he'd inherited a system that continually crashed or failed to deliver.  He knew that. So he brought in a guy he'd known from another company for a few years. The new guy's charge was to make the program work as intended, quickly. My client gave him all the people and resources they both agreed were needed to get the issue fixed.

But over time, it became apparent that the problems weren't being fixed. Nothing seemed to be improving from the point of view of the users in the company.

He met with the new guy and asked for a status report and outlook horizon. His guy told him that things were far worse than ever imagined and it was now going to take a lot longer than required. The VP “understood the difficulty” and gave him more time. When he reported to the management committee about the new forecast he was beaten up in public for not delivering as promised.

When we discussed his situation I asked how often the new hire had updated him and provided early warning signals about the problems and timelines.

It turned out that the new guy (now there for four months) had never briefed my client, preferring to work on his own. My client told me he had asked why he hadn't been alerted to the problems earlier. The new guy said that he,"didn't want to disappoint and alarm" him. The vice president told me that he appreciated that the guy was being a good egg, trying to "protect his boss" by not sharing such bad news.

This VP is still there in the same role, but his CEO told me later that his stock was way down. As a result of this long-term problem, any chances of being promoted are gone as a result of the way the VP handled the issue.  The CEO has said that the guy who had been hired to bring the project back to life is a good promotional candidate, however!

In both these situations, the individuals with "too much" empathy paid a price for it.

I'm not saying that I think any careerist needs to become pathological (e.g., no ability to relate to others in a human manner) -- we've got enough lunatics running the asylums out there.  But it's critical to be able to differentiate when to be "understanding" and when to put your foot down.

john

Leadership Coach

About

John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion d...

26 comments
cln
cln

Thank you for this article -- I've never really thought about "too much" empathy. I'm glad that I read this because now I can keep it in mind, making sure I keep empathy balanced with needing to get the job done. I also now have some insight about why an imbalance (or perceived imbalance) could be career-limiting. Food for thought.

melodie.lente
melodie.lente

So, how do you move away from "too much" empathy toward a more balanced approach, especially when you have been supervising the same group for a long time?

Questioning Reader
Questioning Reader

empathy with the sense of sensibility is the best way in my opinion to survive in today's dynamic business.

jakem
jakem

Thanks for this article and thanks to everyone for replying.

LyleTaylor
LyleTaylor

I have to say that I disagree wholeheartedly with this article. The problem isn't that they had too much empathy; it was that they failed to act appropriately given the situation. I don't think empathy had anything to do with it. In the first scenario, a proper understanding of why the other person was upset should have led to a proper course of action to remediate the issue. Empathy isn't what caused her not to act, rather it was an incorrect or incomplete assessment of the situation. If the problem wasn't that there really issues with her group, then something still should have been done to address the issue, even if it wasn't a sort of reverse bashing campaign or evidence to show that what the other person was saying was not correct. You can try to chalk that up to empathy, but I think that's looking in the wrong direction. In the second scenario, the consultant acted inappropriately, in my opinion, and the manager misjudged the situation and the gravity of it. Again, it looks like empathy, but I don't think that's the case. I'm not sure what I'd call it, but I'm not sure I'd say it's empathy. I think the problem here has more to do with the managers' ability to correctly assess the situations and determine appropriate actions. The fact that apparent "empathy" seems to take a major role in that I think is a red herring and leading you away from the true problem of them simply not being able to correctly assess the situation and determine the correct course of action.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

When I worked for a certain company, I witnessed first hand a complete lack of empathy by a regional manager. As a field engineer, I was graded on many different metrics. Closed call ratio per call received, revenue generated, sales, % repeat calls...the list goes on. I worked for these guys nine long years. Most weeks were 60 hour weeks or more. I realize now, I should have quit after a single year of long hours. My health and personal relationships suffered. I divorced due to infidelity, but looking back I don't blame her. I was either working or spending my time with the kids. I didn't devote enough time to us as a couple. That doesn't justify her actions, I'm just pointing out the fact that I wasn't the husband I could have been. It takes two to make it work, and two to screw it up. Anyway, I spent a good 1 1/2 years being ranked #1 in my region. While going through my divorce, my rank fell from #1 to #36 out of 200. I stayed between #20 and #30 for 6 months. I was given a written warning because of my sudden decrease in performance. I explained my situation, to which his reply was "Not my problem." No offer for counseling or recommendation on what counseling may be covered under insurance, just "Not my problem." When he started in on a tirade about slackers, I walked out. That was a second write up and I was proud to take it. I did eventually reclaim my number 1 spot, then I put in my 2 weeks notice a week later. The regional manager called me to say he was sorry to see me go and I'd be hard to replace. It was obvious he was rushing through formalities so he could set up an exit interview, so I replied "Not my problem." :) I never met a manager before or since that I wanted to drag across the desk and pummel. I didn't care then, nor do I care now what he ever says to a future potential employer. Every other manager at the job spoke highly of me. That was one bridge I was happy to burn.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

Serious question ... Here's my example: BIG Project due on a Thursday afternoon with two weeks to go. All the work divided reasonably to the team and the members all reasonably agreed that given the timeframe and current workloads that this was achievable. We're talking about 8 people (project: putting together a very large tender response). During the process, as is human nature, at various times 3 people are pulled off, mainly through illness either of themselves or their family. We're a medium sized company but we don't have spare folks sitting around for such eventualities. So the end-game was 5 people with effectively double the project workload. ("Double" in terms of many jobs were now picked up by the people who were not 'optimum' for the task and hence took more time to do). As the project manager, it was my responsibility to bring this in on time. Tenders have a "due by" date and time which isn't negotiatiable. I kicked, I screamed, I cajolled, I begged, I negotiated, I made offers and promises, I sat through every evening and nights back at the office either working myself or getting the pizzas and making sure everyone was as comfortable as possible in the circumstance. We got it in, and are currently on a short list of two. I've been called in to HR because one of the team have said I bullied them in the process. I'm not worried about it at all, in fact, as I know enough to record in some detail each and every discussion throughout the entire project for just such 'self protection'. I also made a point, during this project alone, of never talking to any one person in isolation. I am interested in your comments about the balance of 'empathy', as you call it, versus say "carrot and stick" management or (something generally more prevalent in Europe and the UK) situational leadership? At what point in time do you say "We're all working the hours and Sundays, we're all missing our family, we're all stressed, but I really need you to suck it up and deliver upon your commitment to the project/company/client/fellow team members" ?

Timespike
Timespike

Being a ruthless, back-stabbing, cold-blooded bast- er, jerk can also be bad for one's career. You need to be able to be seen as trustworthy by people to advance, and casually stabbing people in the back (then spitting on them when they go down) at every opportunity is a poor way to seem trustworthy. I actually had one coworker who probably would have been promotion material if she hadn't been sure to call out every mistake someone who wasn't her made to management and so forth. I can imagine her as management. "If you're sick and don't come in, expect to address that come review time. If you need time off, your answer is no. That mistake that was made (by me) when you were still out-of-town was not only your fault, but I'm formally disciplining you not only for the slip up, but for trying to hide it from me. If you're even thinking of quitting, rest assured that I will do my level best to blacklist you. I expect you here at 6:00 am Saturday and Sunday to make up for the work that just got passed to us, but I think should be done already."

AndG99
AndG99

It is okay to empathize just don't over sympathize - in short it is one thing to understand others points of view or circumstances and another to get emotionally involved and perhaps be to willing to forgive transgressions due to knowledge of personal circumstances.

cln
cln

Sorry to raise the age-old debate, but: Men and women who ARE good at balancing empathy and getting the job done are viewed differently. Women are seen in a less positive light for accomplishing the same thing in the same manner. Men are seen as tough in a good way, tough women are seen as b**ches. (And yes, I'm female.)

Juanita Marquez
Juanita Marquez

IMO, when it comes between "business survival" and treating people right, treating people right always wins in my book. Granted I'm not, nor ever care to be, a CEO or CIO, so my personal definition of success (and morality) will lie ultimately in how I treat other people during the course of the day and whether or not I have done right by my Real Boss. It may not satisfy the powers you work for (in fact, I lost a job once for taking too long to train a user who was unfamiliar with the software - I was told "training is not part of your job", among other ridiculous things) - but I did The Right Thing and I can sleep at night. The business side of things will work itself out in the long run if you start with common decency as a foundation.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Both examples came across as simply managers who don't have a lcu ehow to manage a team and a project. THe first example, I'd have just fired the broad for whining about others in her team all day. It is also the managers fault for nto beign on top of the social and professional ladder in teh office and knowing what was really going on to begin with. A good manager does not need someone tattling or complaining about staff, a good manager already knows. Second example was just hideous. Fire both the new project hire AND the manager. The new hire didn't report, which it is his duty to do so. It's not HIS money to decide what is important to know and what isn't. The manager should be fired for not requesting constant project updates from the new 'fix it all' guy.

MikeGall
MikeGall

Did a job once were for 6 months I consistently worked between 60 and 84 hours (5-7 12hr shifts a week) a week. The boss told us not to worry about some of the tidying up bit of the job that he'd have someone else do it just to focus on getting the parts out. Not a problem. Then my review came up and he pretty much said that I was slacking off not cleaning up after myself and that I had to be careful because I was replaceable. Not a problem he had to find my replacement the next day. Sadly the guy that he replaced me with had a pretty serious accident a month or so after I left. He was stacking the parts too high on a table for cleaning because he couldn't keep up with the machine. Anyways the table broke and around two thousand pounds of steal parts completely crushed the bones in both his legs. Naturally that was the guys fault not anything to do with the fact of ridiculous work expectations especially for someone new to the job. Anyways long story short, expecting employees to try and to give you near their best effort (no one can sustain 100% all the time) is reasonable. Expecting that the best effort will be the same regardless of health, family problems, etc is not reasonable.

Forum Surfer
Forum Surfer

On a project like that if it is a rare event, it is ok to ask the team to politely suck it up. If this is a project after project ordeal that means 3 out every 4 weeks employees are pulling more than 50 hours all year long, it is unreasonable. I've pulled more ot in the past 3 weeks than I have in 3 years total. I also understand that our small 3 man team is designing and implementing a voice/data solution in a new building to integrate into our MAN. This portion of the project is a killer, but once we are finished next month our hours will be back to normal. Hence, I'm sucking it up.

RookieTech
RookieTech

to much empathy is not a good thing for every ying you need a yang you dont want more ying then yang and vice versa going thru a career being to empathetic can lead to people walking all over you you should look at the situation both ways with your ying and your yang to find the middle thats how i believe it should be is it right no one can say its personal preference i suppose

tiara2000
tiara2000

Thanks for your 2? ? 10^8 worth comment. I agree, if one can't sleep well at night or look oneself in the mirror in the morning and peacefully smile, then it's safe to say that things are not as they should be, be it business or any other dealing.

firesnake77
firesnake77

I also agree - these seem to be examples of avoiding dealing with conflict and not following through, not too much empathy; in both cases, the managers didn't want to appear to be "the bad guy" to their teams. Saying "I understand why they acted that way" is a justification for not acting, not an expression of empathy.

drowningnotwaving
drowningnotwaving

... and it was an unusual event which we all spoke about constantly in what breaks we had from the work. I guess individuals will respond in their own way, as always.

MikeGall
MikeGall

to work for some nice people though. For example my last boss insisted on having people over to his house for department holiday parties. He cooked the food and supplied the drinks. Similarly when someone left he bought presents for them with his personal money. My current boss has been very supportive of everyone. Even to the point of letting one of the guys work on the side on starting up his own company and lending him seed money when he needed it to get the prototypes working. Kind of we love the work you do for us so we want you to be happy even if that is by helping you start working for yourself instead. Very nice.

Juanita Marquez
Juanita Marquez

I value many of the people on TechRepublic and have been lucky enough to have met some of them in person. Their collective decency as well as insight and skills are what keep me coming back, and allow all of us to profit. I apologize if I sounded harsh in my last post, I have just seen too many people come and go at various workplaces for my liking (myself included) when to all appearaces the powers that be considered us as "Employee # 4567563 that would give us $1000 more for the shareholders a year if he were gone" vs. "John the skilled, helpful and valuable worker who has been loyal for a decade". I don't envy the kinds of decisions those at your level must have to make and I know I certainly couldn't pull it off. I've personally known at least one CEO that sat and wept in private after he had to let go of a large number of people. That is why people who combine the best of both worlds, viewing the humanity as well as The Bottom Line, are a rare and valuable find, in my opinion, and those who aspire to that are to be commended.

santeewelding
santeewelding

We are no longer talking about business as common decency. We are speaking about endeavors of sharp dealing, fraud, and rapine. In my "business" here, now, with you, Juanita, and in our respective business with members of this community, you appear to proceed with common decency, and, to profit. I know I profit.

Juanita Marquez
Juanita Marquez

...don't care about decency, they care about how much money you've made for them. Ask anyone with a 401K how many of the businesses they chose to be in their portfolio was due to knowing the businesses conducted themselves with integrity vs. profitability, or how many companies downsize because it's The Right Thing To Do. While I agree decency SHOULD be the foundation of business (shoot, it should be the foundation for most human interactions) unfortunately a number of people see The Bottom Line alone as a more powerful motivator.

Juanita Marquez
Juanita Marquez

...contingent on one's history as a boss, the coworkers/subordinates will also be more inclined to support temporary stresses if they know they are being consistently dealt with in a straight, fair manner. I've been fortunate enough to have had several bosses I'd walk off a cliff for if they asked, because they maintained their ethics and treated us like valued employees; when crunchtime came, we showed our thanks by our extra efforts and positive morale.

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