Empathy in the Workplace: Fact or Crap

by Jennifer R. Keup

OK, confession time: I have become highly suspicious of the use of the term “empathy” in the workplace, especially with respect to leadership.

I realize that this statement is likely to be interpreted as heretical in the highly emotionally-intelligent, person-centered, post-modern world of student affairs practice and leadership. So, let me clarify that I am actually a kind-hearted, sensitive person who values plurality. I cried during the death scenes in the movie Titanic, have been known to get emotional during commercials featuring babies and families, and maintain many longstanding personal and professional relationships. I value diversity, seek opportunities for international exposure and awareness, and actively integrate intercultural perspectives into my life and the lives of my children. I am a good “read” of people, am often the person to whom friends and colleagues confide, and regularly feel my heartstrings pulled by the trials, tribulations, and accomplishments of others. In other words, I believe that empathy is a real and important trait and that it is present in my own innate personality, although I will admit that I have never participated in any formalized training that would allow me to cite a specific measure of the depth or degree of this aspect of my psyche.

My trepidation has more to do with the way that “empathy” is cited and, I would argue, largely misused in the modern workplace.  Empathy is “the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions, or experiences of others” (Gentry, Weber, & Sadri, 2007, p. 4).  It is the ability to see and understand the worldview of others and “share their perspective” (Gallup, 2014, para. 1).  It requires trust, the ability to read subtext and nonverbal cues, strong listening skills, and a healthy balance between compassion and cognition. Several studies of professional performance and leadership in higher education and the corporate world provide evidence that empathy is an important professional quality. This body of research shows that empathy is a critical component of successful management, is related to employee satisfaction and productivity, and is becoming an ever more important leadership quality in a pluralistic and global society.

Conversely, empathy is not the same as sympathy, which is more about pity, nor is it about being nice, which is most often about a need to be liked. While there is some evidence that empathy is associated with “a paternalistic climate of support and protection” (Gentry, Weber, & Sadri, 2007, p. 6), it is not just an expression of familial interest or merely about kindness, which is focused solely on extending goodwill to others. In addition, empathy represents an understanding of another person’s experiences and world view but is not contingent upon agreement or congruence of perspectives. Further, it is not a reason to excuse unhealthy or unproductive behavior or to accept a professional performance that is below standards. In and of itself, empathy does not equal emotionally intelligent leadership; instead it is only one component of several abilities and competencies that comprise emotional intelligence. Finally, and probably most importantly to the theme of this blog, while there is a good bit of evidence that women tend to display greater degrees of empathy than men, empathy, as a trait, is not gendered and can be expressed equally by men and women.

Yet, despite very clear guidelines in the scholarly, theoretical, and practical literature on this topic, I regularly see empathy misused and poorly referenced in the workplace. In some instances, the error is little more than a miscite, such as using the term as synonymous for myriad other positive interpersonal characteristics noted in the previous paragraph (e.g., kind, nice, sympathetic, etc.) or diminishing it to a “buzzword” meant to cue emotionally-intelligent leadership.  While they can set the stage for future misunderstanding of the application and practice of empathy in that professional environment, these types of misuse of the term are often of the “no harm, no foul” variety.

Of much greater concern to me is the reliance upon empathy as a justification for bad behavior, the adaptation of standards, or the subjective interpretation of employee contributions or value. As a supervisor and leader, I am all for working with a colleague to help them get the resources they need to perform the duties of their position toward the achievement of both individual and collective professional goals. I also completely understand that personal and interpersonal issues affect their performance and may require additional or different types of support or a reevaluation of a timeline or due date. So, please do not interpret my unease about empathy as a hard-nosed approach to management that eschews any appreciation of my fellow professionals as whole people with many different roles and demands upon them. However, I am worried about the (mis)use of empathy as a shield or crutch and the corresponding erosion of other very important professional values such as excellence, equity, and especially accountability. Shouldn’t it possible to value, appreciate, and respect someone’s experience and worldview without having to undermine performance standards and still have an expectation that they will fulfill their job functions and responsibilities just as I expect all members of the organization to do? While I firmly believe that the answer to this question is “yes,” too often I see an inaccurate application of the term empathy as the reason that leaders are willing to accept bad behavior, tolerate toxic interpersonal dynamics, and overlook serial unsatisfactory professional performance.  Somehow, this seems to me a bit like the tail wagging the dog.

Finally, I am troubled by a trend I see with respect to gendered references to empathy. Although empathy is a generalized leadership principle, it seems as if the expectation for empathic leadership is much higher for women. Deborah L. Rhode (2003) addresses this issue in her discussion of gender distinctions among leadership styles in her book The Difference “Difference” Makes: Women and Leadership when she references findings from a survey of senior executives. This study “identified five top traits in female managers that reflect widely accepted stereotypes: effective women leaders were thought to empathetic, supportive, nurturing, relation building and sharing” (p. 19). Interestingly, despite these differences in expectations of female leaders, there was little evidence that showed significant gender differences in the actual performance and effectiveness of leaders with respect to these traits.  Yet we continue to ascribe these traits to women in positions of authority and expect female leaders to demonstrate leadership styles that are reflective of a maternal, den leader, or “mother hen” approach. I am concerned that such expectations advance feminine not feminist leadership, continue feelings of discomfort about women’s use of power and political capital, and perpetuate the myth of likeability with respect to women’s success as leaders. Thus, I cannot help be worried that our fascination with empathy in the workplace may, in fact, undermine the evolution of women in leadership roles.

So, what are your thoughts about the role of empathy in the workplace and its relationship with women’s leadership and feminism? I am interested to hear from you and hope that I am able to engage in a discussion around this topic that respects different points of view in an emotionally intelligent way. In other words, I intend to demonstrate empathy even in a discussion about my concerns about empathy.


Gallup (2014). Clifton StrengthsFinder Theme: Empathy. Retrieved from http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/667/empathy/aspx.

Gentry, W.A., Weber, T.J., & Sandri, G. (2007). Empathy in the workplace: A tool for effective leadership (white paper).  Greensboro, NC: Center for Creative Leadership

Rhode, D.L. (Ed.) (2003). The difference “difference” makes: Women and leadership. Stanford, CA: Stanford Law and Politics, An imprint of Stanford University Press.


3 thoughts on “Empathy in the Workplace: Fact or Crap

  1. In undergrad, I had a very valuable experience with one of my professors who had described me as “an empath” and help me learn what empathy really meant. I had been struggling because I felt like I was being emotionally disingenuous or dishonest with a number of people in my life. When I was around them, I felt great about them, but once they left and I was alone with my own thoughts, I realized I felt differently and had more reservations…only to have the cycle repeat itself each time we were together. It felt as if I was being fake, but I couldn’t really understand why I actually felt differently about them in their presence. She explained to me that empathy truly was the ability to feel the emotions of others. When you are sad, I don’t just understand why you are sad, I feel sadness. I share that emotion which can be a huge advantage when someone really needs to be understood. However, it can also be a huge disadvantage if, like at that point in my like, I couldn’t seperate out what they were feeling from my own emotions.

    In the end, I came to realize that I am very in tune to how others feel about themselves. Some people had such overly positive self-perceptions that they overwhelmed my instincts that maybe our relationship wasn’t entirely healthy. Conversely, I was having trouble connecting with people who I actually liked and valued but had such poor self-concepts that it was hard not to believe what they were saying about themselves. What I appreciated about that conversation and the reframing of empathy is that I not only learned that I could feel what others were feeling, but that knowing that, I had to take special care to separate those emotions from my own. It ultimately led me away from more intense counseling or therapy environments where I was more likely to take the work home with me into student affairs where I could better balance the emotional needs of others with my own. As an empathetic leader, I think you have to be very careful to recognize when empathy can be a helpful tool in allowing you to connect with others and take on a new perspective, but you also have to be careful that you are making decisions based on your own judgment of the situation rather than unintentional (or sometimes intentional) emotional hijacking.

  2. Reblogged this on cultivatedminds and commented:
    Empathy is in my top strengths and I consider it a very useful strength. However, I have also seen my peers attempt to take advantage of this part of my nature. The questions this author poses are important ones to ponder.

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