The Leader's Empathy Challenge

The Leader’s Empathy Challenge

April 26, 2020

We often expect others to be just like us. It’s a weirdly human phenomenon that we all think others feel the way we do. So, for example, you may feel that most people have similar opinions to you or draw the same conclusions from social cues as you. There are a few names for this. Some call it the projection bias –because we are projecting our own ideas, opinions, emotions or beliefs onto other people. It’s also been described as the egocentric bias. But for our purposes, they amount to roughly the same thing.

It’s always a  potential pitfall in organizations because it can deepen the likelihood of groupthink. After all, if everyone agrees with your idea, it seems self-evident that it’s a great idea. We rarely even notice our own background assumptions no less interrogate their accuracy. It takes a deliberate effort to interrupt groupthink.

But, what does the projection bias mean during a pandemic, when we have all changed our work habits to work from home –and given up the communal environment of the office? How does the leader’s tendency to assume that everyone shares her own emotional state affect her leadership and her team?

Human Variability

I have a wide variety of leaders as clients, and they are all experiencing the current moment in different ways. Some of them are anxious and full of trepidation –worrying about their teams, their businesses, their families and friends. Others are mentally compartmentalized, and while inconvenienced by the changes in habits, have found it easy to transition and are conducting business as usual. The middle ground is peppered with variations and distinctions. Bottom line? No one feels like anyone else.

In working not just with the CEO or CTO, but also with entire management teams, I’ve seen that the variation in experience is not just between top leaders, but also between the individuals within organizations. Every single person in each organization has a completely unique and idiosyncratic experience of the current situation. Contributing to that is that they all have different living arrangements, backgrounds, family situations, relationships; all have starkly different real circumstances.

The way that we normally deal with this kind of variation is by trying to imagine how we would feel “in their shoes”. In psychology jargon, that’s called stock taking. But research suggests it doesn’t work. In fact, a 2018 study found that stock taking was remarkably ineffective at generating accurate predictions of how other people felt.

Here’s the most ironic part:  In yet a different study it emerged that when we actively attempt to take stock and imagine how someone else feels, we become more confident in our accuracy. But, ironically, the more confident the subjects were about what they predicted, the less accurate they were! Moreover, those who were least confident turned out to be the most accurate. Confidence and accuracy were inversely related. (I have to admit that the finding reminded me of the Dunning Kruger effect)

Only one thing really increased the accuracy in predicting other people’s experience: conversation. In some ways this seems obvious. We learn about other people through conversation. It’s not monosyllabic exchanges or yes-no questions that give us in-depth information, as any decent journalism student will attest. It is open ended questioning and probing that produces a clear narrative. Those open ended, specific questions lead to conversations in which context, detail, texture and background emerge. And with that, we gain real understanding of how things are for someone else.

Keeping it Professional

We’re used to observing certain artificial boundaries in how we deal with our teams. The underlying paradigm tells us that work and personal life are separate. In reality though, we can only bring our personal selves to work; what else could we bring? But because of that assumed context we pull our intimacy punches.  We “keep things professional”. That’s normal. But our current reality is not normal, and those boundaries may allow suffering, struggling and anxious employees to go unsupported.

We must blur the boundaries in order to serve our teams, our colleagues, friends and families.

How can leaders really support their teams right now?

We need to learn enough about their team’s internal reality to truly empathize and provide the right support. Asking “is everyone doing ok” or saying “do you need anything” isn’t enough. It’s easy for a leader to assume that he is doing the right thing with these questions or offers –and they are meant sincerely. But most employees will not offer up their pain, struggle or anxiety. The power imbalance weighs against it. Employees are rightly afraid to lose status, respect, and worst, their jobs. So, staying silent and looking strong, focused and productive is rational.


They won’t necessarily tell us they’re stressed, not sleeping or that their great aunt who lives in a nursing home has them worried. They won’t say that they haven’t seen the sun in weeks or that they have two friends in the hospital. They won’t volunteer that they feel bored, panicked, unable to focus, want to kill their roommate – or that they sit at their home desks from dawn to dusk. But all of that and more is happening.

It’s time to cross ALL kinds of ordinary boundaries. Be specific. Ask if the virus has directly or indirectly touched them. Ask how their family is and whether they are calm, worried, optimistic or scared. Impose strict end-of-day protocols that dictate everyone shuts down, logs off and stops working at some time of day. And have every manager do the same. You will be surprised to discover that you have team members with ailing relatives, or worse. When you ask specifically you will get halting confessions of angst, insomnia or lack of exercise.

Only once you truly understand how they are can you really support your team in this pandemic.

Stay healthy!



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