How to be a more effective leader by expressing empathy

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. This isn't just a language question: Confusing the two can actually make you a less effective leader.

Asian and african women holding hands during group therapy session

Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Language is an incredibly interesting, dynamic beast. New words enter the lexicon, old ones fall out of favor, and definitions evolve over time. 

Sometimes, these evolutions are due to things like technology changes. I still talk about "taping" a show to watch later, which my children readily understand to mean digitally capturing the show with a device of some sort, no magnetic tape involved. Occasionally, the definition evolves to accommodate common misuse. Technically, "data" is the plural of "datum," yet most people use it in the singular and, despite the protestations of grammar purists, "the data is" has become accepted usage.

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Sometimes a common misuse of a word can be detrimental. Empathy is one of those words, defined as, "The ability to understand and share the feelings of another." Essentially, it's the ability to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes." What's problematic is that it is often co-mingled with, or completely confused with sympathy, which is an understanding or feeling of sorrow between people. There's been a great deal of lip service paid to the notion that leaders should be more empathetic, yet many purveyors of this notion are also guilty of confusing empathy and sympathy.

By way of example, you might have a colleague in marketing with whom you're proposing a project to implement some new marketing technology to help her launch a new product. She might ultimately tell you that, "We just don't have the budget to implement the project right now because we have so many other priorities." The sympathetic response would be to share how you know that feeling, as you're also faced with dozens of competing priorities, and the company never seems to understand how its grand strategies need funding to actually get implemented. That could very well result in a shared moment of connection, but it doesn't accomplish much in terms of understanding why your technology project was ultimately rejected.

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The empathetic response would be to try and put yourself in her shoes. She likely has competing priorities, but perhaps your technology project didn't address her major concerns surrounding the product launch. If you can mentally put yourself in her shoes, at a minimum you'll better understand why your initiative didn't pass muster, and you might even better understand how you can collaborate in the future.

Empathy and sympathy are not always traveling partners

As you manage your own teams, understanding the distinction between empathy and sympathy is equally critical, especially when managing people who are different than you, either in terms of age, background, experience level, or dozens of other factors. When someone on your team comes to you with a problem, sympathy is nice, but is unlikely to actually help address their problem if it's not something you've dealt with before. For example, if you have a team member in a wheelchair, they may or may not find your sympathy therapeutic, but they'd be significantly more likely to find your ability to put yourself in their situation, and proactively create ways for them to be an effective part of the team extremely helpful.

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Interestingly, you can also be empathetic with people for whom you have little sympathy. You may not understand or relate to a team member's situation, and thus provide little sympathy, but you can place yourself in their shoes and not only get a better understanding of what they're facing, but also help address their concerns in a way they find helpful and meaningful.

Sympathy is cheap

Perhaps the reason sympathy and empathy are often confused is that sympathy is a relatively easy emotion to offer, especially when someone is going through a situation that we've personally experienced. It's a bit of "emotional candy" in that it feels good for both the giver and receiver for a short time, but provides relatively little long-term benefit. Empathy, on the other hand, is more challenging. It requires us to attempt to deeply understand another person's perspective, even if it's one we've never experienced ourselves, or perhaps even disagree with. 

The reward, however, merits the investment. If you cultivate an ability to deeply understand colleagues, team members, and your own leaders, you'll unlock insights into how to help them and relate to them in a meaningful and impactful manner that's far more nourishing to your leadership abilities than the "sugar rush" of sympathy.

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