Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management Groundbreaking ideas and research for engaged leaders
Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

To be an empathetic leader, don't do this!

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Greg Depow,  Michael Inzlicht

In recent years — and especially since the pandemic — “empathy” has emerged as the most important leadership trait. But new research suggests that one approach to displaying empathic leadership may inadvertently make the situation worse.

According to a recent study, leaders who demonstrate empathy by sharing the negative emotions displayed by team members are at higher risk of burning out, experiencing personal distress and are more likely to quit. Conversely, those who demonstrate empathy by displaying compassion while still maintaining a degree of emotional distance enjoy greater personal and professional well-being.

"Empathetic leadership is in vogue within management circles right now, but the wrong approach to empathy could be doing more harm than good,” said Rotman professor Michael Inzlicht, who co-authored the study.

The researchers instead found that leaders who demonstrate compassion without internalizing the emotional suffering of others receive greater satisfaction scores from their reports.

“Feeling compassion for someone’s suffering is not associated with distress and burnout, but sharing in someone’s suffering is,” says psychology Ph.D. candidate Greg Depow, lead author of the report. “Even though they go together most of the time, it’s still important to try to regulate which one you’re focusing on in the moment, depending on the circumstances.”

The researchers tested the relative effectiveness of compassion and empathy by surveying more than 2,000 leaders and 1,000 followers about their preferred approach to six common workplace scenarios that required leaders to address negative emotions expressed by followers.

“So maybe you’re in a meeting and the follower is starting to get frustrated, [we asked], ‘which of these two responses would you lean towards?’” says Depow. “Would you share their frustration so they feel a sense of connection and then try to address the issue? Or would you not get caught up in their frustration and remain calm, but show that you care that they’re frustrated and try to solve the problem?”

In the end, the study found that leaders who more frequently opted for the compassionate approach — what the researchers call “caring” rather than “sharing” — demonstrated a reduced intent to quit, less burnout, less personal distress, increased subjective wellbeing and life satisfaction, and increased leader efficacy. The benefits even extended to their team members.

“[Employees] have more job engagement themselves, more organizational commitment, and higher leader member exchange — which is like satisfaction with your relationship with your leader,” Depow says.

Depow adds that it stands to reason that a leader who frequently mirrors their team members’ negative emotions may inadvertently discourage others from freely showcasing those emotions.

“From the follower’s perspective, they [might] feel like ‘if I go to my leader with a problem, they’re going to take it on themselves, it’s going to upset them. Maybe that will have drawbacks on me,’” says Depow. “’If I’ve got an upset leader, that could make things worse, so I won’t go to them with my problem, I’ll go to someone else.’ But then they don’t feel supported by their leader in those sorts of situations.”

As a control measure, the researcher also asked leaders who responded to the study to include the contact information of their direct reports. Those team members were then asked questions about their bosses’ approach to managing negative emotions displayed by others to further validate the leaders’ self-reported data.

When the two groups are aligned in their responses, employees reported lower rates of burnout, Depow says, adding that in all but 29 per cent of cases, there was a misalignment between how leaders say they would handle a particular situation and how reports believe they would. “As you get further apart in your perception, burnout from followers gets higher, and job satisfaction gets lower.”

The researchers emphasize, however, that their findings are specific to negative emotions in the workplace. "It's important to note that the same is not true of positive emotions,” explains Inzlicht. “Sharing those with your team is always encouraged and is associated with positive outcomes in the long run."

Depow adds that, considering how much time the average employee spends at work, negative emotions are inevitable, and the current conversation around emotional leadership might suggest that the best approach is to relate to those emotions directly. Instead, Depow says leaders should try to show compassion without taking on the responsibility of sharing in the sadness.

“Humans are emotional animals, we’re going to have emotions at work, and I think it’s important not to just push those aside and act like robots, but to try and be accepting of those things, while minimizing how much harm it does to yourself and others,” he says. “For leaders, try and be open to those responses, but don’t take on a responsibility to suffer whenever your team members are suffering.”

Greg Depow is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Toronto
Michael Inzlicht is a professor in the Department of Psychology, with a cross-appointed at the Rotman School of Management, and a Research Fellow at the Behavioural Economics in Action group.