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.


Leadership Coach


John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of, 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...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox