Ups & downs of empathy in creative leadership

If you consider yourself a creative person, there’s a good chance that you might also have strong empathy skills. Empathy allows us to build healthy relations to people around us, to our jobs, and build families. In my previous post you will se how empathy is also related to creativity. 

In this post I will focus on the ups and downs of empathy in creative leadership. Empathy is an essential skill when working with other people, but if you are a highly empathetic person (like myself), you might at times have felt emotionally overwhelmed. I will give you my best strategies to balance empathy just the right way.

Just to understand empathy 

I’m not a scientist, but from a little research I found that empathy involves a set a skills in the whole brain. Generally speaking empathy as an inborn trait can be described as reflexive empathy, and this can build up to emotional empathy. When exposed to sounds or images of others in pain, we will have a neurological response in the area of the brain that controls pain (reflexive empathy). In the same way the feeling of pain can arise from just knowing what another person is going through (emotional empathy). These are the most simple forms of empathy. 

As we grow up we learn the more sophisticated level of cognitive empathy. This is what we usually describe as empathy in everyday speech – the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes or take the perspective of another person. This is also strongly linked with the feeling of understanding and caring, helpfulness, kindness, and other pro-social behaviors.

The ups of empathy in creative leadership

… or just any kind of leadership. Since leadership involves working with other people, understanding your employees, audiences, partners, stakeholders, competitors etc., empathy is an essential skill. 

Psychologist, Prudy Gourguechon who has studied insights into the psychology underlying critical choices in business, describes on forbes.com how empathy is just as hardcore as any other business skill: 

“Empathy involves scanning large sets of data, sorting out what’s noise and what’s essential information.” Prudy Gourguechon, Forbes.com

We do this all the time without even noticing. We recognize how others feel and respond to changes, information given, new tasks, critical feedback, challenges, co-workers, and a whole lot of other situations. Scanning all those data means sorting out reactions that come from e.g. having a one-off bad day, or reactions that are normal in the given situation. Our respons is just as natural; giving a cheer to those who are stuck in work, listening to those who feel upset, simply just showing that we care. That’s how we build relations and teams.

Your knowledge of other people’s feelings and reactions are key to succesful leadership. According to Prudy Gourguechon, empathy is essential in the following processes, that I would call the ups of empathy in leadership: 

  • Know if you are reaching your audience
  • Predict the effect of your decisions and actions on core audience (and strategize accordingly)
  • Build a team 
  • Nurture a new generation of leaders
  • Inspire followers and gain loyalty
  • Negotiate and sale, know your counterparts desires and the risks they are willing to take

I was appointed leader of a team at a time where the organization I worked for had undergone some structural changes as a consequence of setting a new management team. It had left many of my co-workers disorientated and frustrated with the lack of information, uncertainty, and perspective. I knew very well what they needed to regain motivation and satisfaction. My first priority was perspective; communicate what our team would be doing, individual responsibilities, and scheduled team meetings. I also asked the team to feed in their expectations to my role and their gain from being a team. Quickly we grew as a team with in fact a really simple structure. Empathy in leadership is to know what other people feel and respond effectively and strategically to it. 

The down’s of empathy and how to handle them

I promised to pay attention to the downside as well. If you are high on the empathy scale, as I am, you will know that sometimes you are challenged if you get too emotionally involved with other people’s issues or you might feel that it is hard to explain your insights in the management group. 

Thanks to a professional business psychologist I learned how to balance empathy and not mess it up with compassion or make myself responsible for other people’s feelings. 

Domains

A really useful technique is to learn to step away from the situation and look at the process from above. Analyze the situation in three domains; the esthetic domain, the productive domain, and the reflective domain. 

Doing this you place yourself in the reflective domain, and take a helicopter perspective on what is going on matching values, ethics, world views with facts, structures, and productivity. Again your empathetic skills come in handy as this process actually requires your ability to see the situation from different perspectives. My experience is that this way of stepping back brings clarity and good solutions.

Rain coat

If you are the “go-to” person who is trustworthy and understanding, you will know that often people come to you for support of just to relieve their minds. My natural reaction is that I want to help out, and I tend to make it my responsibility to solve whatever problem we are talking about. If you feel the same way, put on your imaginary rain coat. Remind yourself in the situation, that this is not your responsibility. You can listen and even make suggestions, but don’t take other people’s feelings on board. Let it rain off your coat.

Translation

I have often felt it difficult to make a point in the management group based on empathy or intuitive feeling. Learn yourself to put words on your feelings and turn it into powerful arguments. You might even base it on your domain analysis. Describe the facts and why you assume or predict certain responses. Follow up with alternative solutions that will match the situation. 

All of the above takes practice. I still train these techniques, and it is a true relief when you get the right balance. Don’t be afraid to bring empathy into play in the management group. Most likely you will be respected and understood. 

Please share your thoughts, ideas, or experiences with this topic in the comment field.

The image above is from The Giant Puppet Theatre by Forman Brothers (CH), shown in Aarhus (DK) in 2017. The giant knight is 7 meters (23 feet) tall, and moves around town with his muse. The act was a touching illustration of the relation between antipoles.

Learn more

If you want to read more about empathy as a leadership skill, I recommend this post by Prudy Gourguechon on Forbes.com:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/prudygourguechon/2017/12/26/empathy-is-an-essential-leadership-skill-and-theres-nothing-soft-about-it/#4eca757d2b9d

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