Is Empathy Redundant for Successful Leadership?

Is empathy essential in the workplace, or is it more of a hindrance?

Posted Nov 06, 2018

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In research fields, empathy is “hot.” Psychologists and neuroscientists have published considerable ongoing studies in fields as far-ranging as aesthetic experience to sports to leadership. Certainly within the business environment, conversations around empathy have become a prominent topic of discussion.

Yet, not all empathy is equal, per se. It’s useful to refine our understanding of empathy and its usefulness.

The term itself was first introduced by psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1909. The original term einfühlung directly translates as “feeling into,” which is how empathy is distinct from sympathy. While sympathy indicates a less active involvement in the feelings of other people, empathy involves a more active involvement to experience vicariously somebody else’s emotional or psychological state.

Author and winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize Daniel Kahneman wrote about the impact of empathy in business in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. In it, he highlights empathy as a key concept for business—and often one which is intuitively understood. Says Kahneman: “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”

This idea that empathy is a useful quality in businesses has been supported by prominent CEO’s such as Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. In an interview with CBS Good Morning, she said that “Empathy is everything even in a business context. There was no way we could innovate without having a deeper sense of empathy.”

In a white paper entitled Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership, the Centre for Creative Leadership analyzed data from 6,731 managers from 38 countries to gain insight into the impact of empathy on leadership. Their research discovered that leaders who showed more empathy were perceived as better performers.

Not So Fast

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is skeptical about putting too much weight behind empathy. In Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Bloom analyzes the limitations—and even the dangers—of empathy when it comes to decision-making.

"The idea I’ll explore is that the act of feeling what you think others are feeling—whatever one chooses to call this—is different from being compassionate, from being kind, and most of all, from being good. From a moral standpoint, we’re better off without it." (Bloom, 2016)

From his research, Bloom suggests that rather than choosing a course of action based on our feelings of a given situation, there are better ways to make productive and useful decisions.

Leadership & empathy expert Patricia Bravo, who teaches leadership courses at the University of Washington, Bothell, says that, "Empathy is most effectively used to inform rather than directly influence leader decision-making.” In an email interview, she notes that under stressful situations or when under pressure from team members, leaders might not monitor their own feelings effectively. In such “times of low self-monitoring, excessive empathy can sway a leader to react solely based upon an emotional response rather than respond based on a blend of facts, data, and emotional understanding." 

So is empathy a redundant trait for successful leaders in business, and how can you know if it’s the right choice?

The psychologist Paul Ekman has some clues as to how to resolve Bloom’s concerns. He posits that, in fact, there are three types of empathy.

  • Cognitive empathy is about knowing and understanding how someone else feels
  • Emotional empathy is experiencing the feelings of another person
  • Compassionate empathy involves feeling and understanding what another person is going through, and being moved to do something about the situation

Cognitive and emotional empathy each have their drawbacks for a leader. Cognitive empathy involves a level of detachment, while emotional empathy can be almost totally overwhelming.

Yet compassionate empathy can reconcile the concerns of Bloom in a way which is constructive for leaders. Rather than a ‘nice-to-have’ soft skill, having empathy as a leader can help you improve your leadership, the engagement of your team, and your communication with customers or clients.

Bravo notes that:

"Just like we moderate our speed when driving a car, leaders can moderate their degree of empathy.  When we drive, we know our tendencies and use that in combination with an assessment of the environmental conditions to inform our optimal speed and corresponding actions. By assessing their empathetic tendencies and the conditions of the people and work environment, leaders can determine whether they need to dial empathy up or down to optimize effectiveness."

Here are some recommendations:

1. Be present with your team

Engaging and taking time with your team is a vital way to encourage engagement and enthusiasm. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, says that, “Instead of offering to do anything, just do something.”

By offering options, instead of an open choice, it shows a commitment to really making a difference, and a respect for your team member’s needs.

2. Be aware of other people’s needs

State as your hiring practice tenets such as cognitive diversity and social diversity. When hiring: Ask a question about how a candidate would approach a problem to gauge their way of thinking.

A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that as a way of thinking, the more time and attention participants spent thinking empathically, the more sensitive they become.

Leading by example, and putting yourself in someone else’s shoes can help you to develop empathy as well as to establish it as a core principle of your team.

3. Take good care of yourself

The importance of empathy does not mean that it is necessarily an easy task. To avoid the overwhelm of emotional empathy, and to keep a clear head, you have to take care of your own needs.

Don’t leave yourself empty with trying to help others and not taking care of yourself. Take time every week to do something you enjoy and recharge your batteries. Engage with friends, family, and take time for your needs.


Bradford Titchener, Edward (2014). Introspection and empathy. Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences 7

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

Tusche, Anita, et al. “Decoding the Charitable Brain: Empathy, Perspective Taking, and Attention Shifts Differentially Predict Altruistic Giving.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 27 Apr. 2016.

Gentry, et. al. WHITE PAPER: Empathy in the Workplace A Tool for Effective Leadership (2016)