Recently, I have read numerous articles calling for more empathic managers. They’re wrong. Empathy is not the missing piece of employee engagement or trust. Yes. Empathy is better than callousness. That part is true. But empathy is far from the best one can do.
Some of the articles touting the need for greater empathy among mangers are based on research but the research didn’t dig deep enough or consider employee’s core self-evaluations of their worth or abilities. Core self-evaluations account for 27-41% of an employee’s engagement and good core self-evaluations protect against burnout.
Before research can be evaluated to determine its worth, it is necessary to understand what factors affect the outcome being examined. For example, if I ask what you ate for dinner last night and then use your answer to make judgments about your habits, your health, and the quality of your pro-health decisions, the results will be useless. Before I can ascertain any of those things I’d have to know whether you had the financial resources to eat something different and chose to eat what you ate. I’d have to know if you were with a group and you acquiesced to the group’s chosen dining location. I’d have to know if you were stressed because stress negatively impacts the health of food choices in 71% of people. I’d have to know if you had time limitations that influenced your decision. Can you think of other information I would need before I could make judgments about the healthiness of your eating habits?
In the same way, research that points to the lack of empathy in managers as a reason for turnover and job dissatisfaction has not asked for all the relevant information. If Paul Harvey were here, he’d tell us we don’t have the rest of the story. This article fills in some of the missing pieces and explains why empathy is not the holy grail of employee retention or anything else.
The best managers won’t feel empathy for more than a brief (momentary) time before they move on to behaviors that inspire their employees.
Let’s frame this conversation by defining happiness:
“The state of happiness we are referring to doesn’t require a constant state of bliss. It is a deep sense of inner stability, peace, well-being, and vitality that is consistent and sustainable. Awareness that one possesses the knowledge and skills to return to a happy state, even when not in that state, is a critical component of sustainable happiness.”
A perpetual state of happiness is not recommended. That would necessitate being inauthentic at times and authenticity is extremely healthy. In Remarkable Recoveries one common thread of individuals who experienced spontaneous recoveries from terminal illnesses was a decision to be more authentic. There is enough evidence about the benefits of authenticity that I always recommend be authentic.
It is possible for something to occur that takes one out of the state of happiness, but when the person has enough knowledge and skills that they are sure they know the way back to happiness, they find it easy to feel hopeful and if you have hope, you don’t go to those deep, dark emotional states. In fact, those deep dark emotions reflect the absence of hope. Hopeful is a pretty healthy emotional state, far better than despair and depression and considerably better than frustrated.
Empathy requires finesse. For most people, empathy requires that the person “understand how the upset person feels.” So, for example, let’s say they’ve just found out that someone treated them unfairly (perhaps promoted someone else when they believe they deserved the promotion or cheated on them in a relationship). I’ll use the cheated on analogy as I explain further because most people can relate to relationship issues.
So, let’s talk about this analogy. Someone is emotionally upset about being cheated on. As their friend, we’re taught to feel empathy for them. This translates into finding out the nitty-gritty details of the transgression and feeling indignant anger and hurt for them by attempting to feel as they feel and validate the feelings they feel.
The discussion where we learn the nitty, gritty details has a scientific name, co-rumination. Negative rumination is when an individual thinks about unwanted outcomes. Co-rumination is when you share your unhappiness with someone else and it happens to be an unhealthy habit of thought that increases the risk of depression.
In other words, in order to understand the bad things happening to someone so that you can feel empathy for them, you have to co-ruminate, which is an unhealthy habit of thought associated with depression. Given the high rate of depression in our population and the detrimental effects it has on our relationships and physical health, t is probably better to skip that step whenever possible.
One of the first things my students learn is that you feel what you feel, no outside validation is necessary. If you feel it, then it is your emotion. You own it. It is the result of your perspective on the topic on which you are focused. There are many other perspectives that could be chosen—millions in fact. Your power resides in the choices you make.
What most people do is take the emotional hit and then make it worse.
I trusted her and love her and she cheated on me.
They can choose from millions of thoughts that make it worse:
I’m a horrible judge of character to marry a woman who would cheat on me.
I’ll be alone the rest of my life because I’ll never be able to trust anyone again.
I don’t want to lose her, I don’t want to be alone.
Will I get to see the kids often if I divorce her or will I have full custody and how will I manage that?
What is wrong with me that she was not satisfied with me?
The list of potential thoughts that feel even worse goes on and on.
If you go right there with your friend, you’re feeling anger and despair right along with him. In that emotional state, your cognitive abilities decrease. You’re less able to help him find solutions to the questions that are plaguing him. (I’ll ignore the negative health effects of stress for the purposes of this conversation but they are there. Negative emotions are an indicator that tell you that you’re experiencing stress.) As you enter that emotional state, emphasizing with him, you are also projecting lower expectations about his future prospects to him than you would from a higher emotional state where you would have a broader viewpoint.
That is why I don’t encourage empathy—and especially not long-term empathy. What I recommend instead has several benefits to both people.
First, a word about this. I think it would be very difficult for anyone raised on our current society to not feel empathy for a friend who has experienced something unwanted. It is the duration you’re willing to tolerate the lower emotional state to feel as they feel that I encourage you to shorten—drastically.