How To Overcome The Three Enemies of Empathy as a Leader

1 March 2022


Hand holding a heart cut from paper

Empathy is a hot topic in leadership discussions at the moment and rightly so. The way in which companies, leaders, and fellow colleagues treat each other in the workplace has a direct effect on how those same people treat others when not at work.

It is vital for leaders of organisations to recognise the importance of empathy and to grapple with how the various cogs in the machine of a business or organisations function to ensure that people leave at the end of each day feeling valued and fulfilled.

Whilst this may seem like a straightforward concept, the challenge is making it a reality. However, the first step in achieving such a culture is through the practice of empathy and compassion.

This is not always easy and so in this blog we are discussing and sharing how to overcome the three enemies of empathy to improve as a leader.

The enemies of empathy in the workplace

There are three emotions which act as enemies to developing productive empathy and compassion in a workplace: FEAR, ENVY, and SHAME.

These three emotions are all fundamental emotions rooted in the primitive/survival part of our human make up. They are emotions which we feel daily and, if left unchecked, can significantly hinder our ability as humans to connect with one another.

As leaders, it is important that we try to understand more fully how these emotions manifest in our daily lives so that we may more fully understand how they also operate within the teams that we lead. The more we engage with these emotions and create dialogues with ourselves in recognition of them, it allows us to bring ourselves more authentically to our teams.

Primitive versions of humans were unable to create a dialogue between the survival nature of these emotions and the rational, moral conception of these emotions in developing stronger and more robust human connections.

Like the fight or flight response that we feel in stressful or threatening situations, nuanced interactions with others in our lives will bring these emotions to the surface with the aim of keeping the individual safe from a threat. The good news is, we have developed the ability to take a step back from these emotions to understand their origins and to rationalise the reasons behind them.

This understanding helps us to delay the response to the emotion…most of the time. Research shows that the best leaders in the world have a strong ability to manage their emotions and choose appropriate responses, as well as helping others to hone this skill. Effectively, the ability of leaders to understand these complex emotions means that they have a stronger ability to develop empathy in a practical sense, ultimately allowing them to get the best out of themselves and their teams.

Enemy of empathy #1: FEAR

Enemy of empathy: FEAR

Fear can be good and bad in equal measure. Like all emotions, fear can inform us that things aren’t right or that something needs to change.

However, fear can also cause us to freeze in a moment or make it difficult to make a decision. Managing fear is fundamental to ensuring that decisions made in a fearful situation are not rushed or overtaken by the emotion. But how does the acknowledgement of fear help us as leaders to develop compassion and empathy? 

There is a great scene in the film ‘GI Jane’ where a drill instructor utters the phrase:

“Do you know what the good thing about pain is? It lets you know that you’re not dead.”

Digging deeper into this, you could say the same thing about fear. If something is scary or is causing fear within, it means that you are functioning normally. Rather than running away from the emotion, research shows that leaning further into the emotion of fear to better understand why it is present helps us move into a state where the feeling still exists yet brought to a level that is more manageable.

Understanding how we individually go through this process is vital in helping others do the same. When a team member has acted out of character or has had a less than positive interaction with another colleague, it will be important for you as a leader to take a wider view of the situation so that you can understand which emotions are underpinning the interaction. If fear is present, you need to explore further the reasons behind this fear so that a useful conversation can follow.

Most people act out of character if they do not have the capacity to recognise and reconcile the times when they are feeling fearful.

So, the next time you find yourself in a fearful situation, take note of what is happening physically, mentally, and how you’re interacting with the world around you. This will help you better understand and recognise when others are experiencing similar emotions, allowing you to help them more productively.

Enemy of empathy #2: SHAME

Enemy of empathy: Shame

Like all emotions, shame is a very subjective emotion and the level to which we feel this emotion is fully dependent on the context of the person feeling the emotion. It is affected by the environment that we are operating in and permeates all aspects of our lives in several ways.

On the continuum of human connection, it sits at the opposite end of empathy, which makes it even more important to be able to identify its triggers as early as possible.

With all leadership skills, developing mechanisms to understand this emotion within yourself will make it easier to empower those around you to understand it within themselves.

In addition, by understanding how shame manifests in you as an individual and understanding that all other people feel shame on some level, it will help you to recognise the importance of ensuring the culture of your team. This will then allow the team to move through the emotion in a constructive way. 

Consequences of shame if left unchecked include:

  • An inability to connect to others emotionally
  • Increased levels of fear or feeling scared
  • Persistent negative mindset to most things
  • Engagement with addictive behaviours such as bad diet, self-loathing, etc.

Ultimately, when significant numbers of people in a team are consumed by the emotion of shame without the ability or environment to name it, negative and toxic cultures can emerge. 

Therefore, being aware that this emotion is felt by all humans can help leaders make decisions about how they support their teams. It helps them to foster a culture of openness and support to help eradicate or suppress the amount of shame people feel whilst in the workplace.

Shame survives and is fueled when people keep it secret, when they stay silent about it, and when they constantly judge themselves negatively with respect to others. As such, leaders need to be creative in how they ensure that they offer people the chance to engage in more positive ways with the emotion of shame. 

A useful exercise for leaders to do with themselves include:

  1. Identifying the triggers of the emotion
  2. Reality check those fears (rationalise the fears)
  3. Share the fears with a trusted individual (this helps to recognise and normalise the emotion).

Once leaders can master this process, they can then begin to see how this process could be replicated in the teams they lead as a way to help normalise the emotion. This will in turn avoid the negative behaviours that can follow.

Ultimately, shame cannot survive being spoken about. The challenge for leaders is to create the time, place, and space for this to happen.

Enemy of empathy #3: ENVY

Enemy of empathy: ENVY

We are taught from a young age that the feeling of envy is terrible, and destructive. As a result, when this emotion surfaces (yes, for everyone), we’re inclined not to explore it to any great depth.

Instead, we feel ashamed or guilty for allowing ourselves to feel this way, leading to the suppression of the emotion, or the hiding of it from others. This is a dangerous cycle that most people follow which is why envy is an enemy of compassion and empathy.

The reality is far different from our common experience. Envy is a vital emotion to feel and understand. There are several key pieces of information about us that can be gleaned from the emotion of envy if we reflect carefully on how and when we feel the emotion.

The key positives that accompany the feeling of envy include:

  1. Helping us to identify and understand what we want
  2. Encouraging us to ask for what we want
  3. Unlocking clues as to what we want to do with the rest of our lives

To gain the benefits of feeling envy, we must first move past the humiliation of the emotion so that we can begin to see and understand the potential benefits.

An action that a leader could take to understand this in more depth is to record or list the situations and people that make you feel envious. From this list, you may find patterns in how this emotion is triggered, allowing you to decide which actions you may want to take to grasp and embody the things that have made you feel envious.

Most of us have someone we look up to for various reasons. This is a good example of how you might start to think about using envy to strengthen your resolve, rather than to thwart it.

The things that we admire don’t just exist as some ideological vision of what we want to be. Rather, they exist as contracted versions in our lives. They exist in smaller, more manageable chunks which help us to create a better version of ourselves linked to the things we admire most about those around us or our environment.

For example, if you are envious of Eric Clapton’s ability to play the guitar, becoming him is most certainly not going to be possible.

However, learning how to play the guitar will give you a better understanding and appreciation of the craft and will potentially make your life feel more fulfilling. You won’t go on a world tour, but you might sing your child to sleep (both epic in scope).

A leader’s ability to be understood and be honest about the emotions they feel helps them become better versions of themselves .It also helps those around them become stronger, more connected, and more resilient.

In conclusion, when we seek to understand our individual emotions, both “good” and “bad”, and what they’re trying to say, this helps us to understand the journey that others around us are navigating.

Hence, this examination and understanding of emotions helps to develop greater human connection and more empathetic and compassionate leaders and organisations.

We all need to do better at listening to our emotions and supporting others to do the same in order to be better leaders. Do you agree? Leave us a comment and let us know! Explore our Compass For Life leadership and vision programmes.