No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!

Are you being too empathetic to your team? Did you know that being too empathetic to others can make you feel worse and be perceived as less effective by others? Controversial? Not as counter intuitive as you think.

In a recent study, researchers found that leaders who help their subordinates with personal problems at work actually transfer some of the emotions to themselves making them feel worse. Worse still is that these leaders were more likely to be perceived as less effective at subsequent task related behaviours. Really! Read for yourself (article summary here).

The question, in my mind, is not whether this is true, but how an emotionally agile leader would deal with this? Well, for one, you need to understand the difference between empathy and compassion. And you’ll need a little help from your team – you cannot do it alone. Below are three ways in which you can manage personal support to others:

Timing. Some of the tips in the article are very useful, e.g. to deal with emotionally heavy tasks after a break or at the end of the day when you have time to recover afterwards.

Compassion, not empathy. Secondly, we often mistake empathy for compassion. You can learn to apply compassion rather than empathy. Empathy is to join the suffering of the other person – we feel their pain or suffering. But we may stop short of actually help them. Consider how you feel after seeing a picture or video of people suffering….So, it makes sense that too much empathy can be debilitating. When we become too distressed about the suffering of others, we don’t have the cognitive and emotional resources available to do much to help them. Compassion is to feel FOR someone, not with them. There is a subtle but profound difference. In compassion we take a step away from the emotion of empathy, we have cognitive understanding of their suffering and we ask ourselves ‘how can we help?’. Applying compassion actually makes us feel better, more kind and more motivated to help others. You can read more about the difference between empathy and compassion here.

Gratitude. The third solution is in the hands of the receivers of your support. Your colleagues or subordinates will help when they express gratitude for your help. As coach I often help clients and employees with personal problems. Experience their gratitude and energy afterwards is highly satisfying and can recharge my emotional batteries. One thing you can do to make a difference today is to start a culture of gratitude. While you make others express gratitude, you could start by expressing gratitude towards someone who has helped you with a personal problem and start a movement of gratitude in your organisation.

So, are you too kind and empathetic? Do your employees show gratitude for the emotional labour? Share your comments here!

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished!
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