Should a busy leader empathize or sympathize at work? Let’s zoom in on a workplace scenario: One of your colleagues, Toni, is an independent contractor who has been on a temporary assignment with your unit at the Department of Justice for the last year.
Toni has a great personality, she’s warm, intelligent and a positive source of energy around the office. Toni has been helping out as an Object Oriented Programmer while Sheila Martin has been away on maternity leave.
Today is Tuesday, the 1st week of December. One of your colleagues whispers to you at the coffee machine: “Toni’s contract is up. She’s being let go and everybody is feeling pretty sad about it,” says Ben, “It was generally understood that management would find a position for her somewhere. At least, that’s the impression I got.”
Toni is your colleague and also a friend, although you have never met socially at office events – she is a single mother and her 5-year old son is autistic and takes up all her spare time. You think about the successes that she has helped your unit achieve this past year, especially in creating cutting-edge customer-centric self-help tools for litigants.
Next week Friday, Toni will be let go. How should you respond? Should you express sympathy or empathy at work? Or maybe just do nothing. After all, she knew her contract was just for a year.
Compare the following definitions of sympathy and empathy.
The act of sharing or tendency to share in an emotion or sensation or condition of another person or thing.
[The Canadian Oxford Dictionary]
Sympathy is a social affinity in which one person stands with another person, closely understanding his or her feelings.
Empathy – The power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.
[The Canadian Oxford Dictionary]
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings (such as sadness or happiness) that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. [Wikipedia] [sapient - having or showing great wisdom or sound judgment.]
What do you notice? The definitions above tend to overlap. There is no clear distinction or guidance as to what context one should empathize or sympathize. In my experience, most busy business leaders are also not clear about the difference and tend to mix them up. The result can be a hybrid response that is not appropriate or effective.
Sympathy happens when we are exposed to a situation or emotion of another person and we respond appropriately through expressing, experiencing or acting on it with authenticity [my definition].
If we were to truly sympathise with Toni, and for our sympathy to be authentic, it would imply that we have some sort of relationship or friendship with Toni. The relationship is usually a result of working with a colleague for a period of time.
If you spontaneously sympathize with Toni or choose to sympathize with Toni, consider the following:
As we can see from the above, there is an upside and a downside to responding with sympathy in a work environment.
Empathy happens when we sense and respond to the unique experience of another person by creating a space for that person to feel heard, valued and understood. When we are fully present in this way, we are able to authentically communicate our understanding of the emotions the person is experiencing, their unique situation and the impact or implication of what’s going on for them [my definition].
Empathy can happen in the corridor or at the water cooler. It can be a brief encounter or a time-lapse. And when we empathize authentically with someone like Toni, it’s a seamless dialogue so she will feel valued, heard and understood. The key thing is that empathy is counter-intuitive – we need to resist the tendency to solve Toni’s problems and offer her solutions. We must be content, as Arthur Ciaramicoli says in his book, The Power of Empathy, “to live with ambiguity” and be content in our “inability to find answers.” or solve her problems. The more we try to help Toni, the less we are truly being empathic.
In this sense, empathy is a commitment to listen to understand without an agenda. It’s an engagement in the experience of another person. As William Isaacs puts it with reference to conflict, but is suitable for empathy as well, empathy is a conversation with a centre, not sides. And the centre is Toni’s unique experience.
To empathize with Toni is to create the space for her to articulate her understanding of her situation. A coach approach allows her to articulate what she is feeling and the impact on her life. Authentic empathy gives Toni back a sense of her own power and her potential to take ownership of her future.
If you spontaneously empathize with Toni or choose to empathize with Toni, consider the following:
The preferred business response
Back to the question: Should a busy leader empathize or sympathize at work? To sense and respond with empathy to the unique experiences of employees and colleagues at work, is a powerful, meaningful and principled way to engage people, and it is critical to the success and strategic advantage of the organization.
As a coach, my preferred response in the workplace is to empathize with authenticity, rather than to show sympathy, although sympathy is appropriate in some circumstances.
The bottom line is that both true empathy and sympathy will cost a busy leader time, emotional energy and cognitive energy. But the upside is that authentic engagement will contribute to a culture that includes loyalty, better productivity, higher engagement and increased morale. And it all begins and ends with a conversation – conversations really do count.Dene Rossouw is co-founder of AuthenticDialogue.com and TheIdeasEngine.com in Vancouver, specializing in influencing and innovative solutions. He helps his clients have the necessary conversations of leadership and helps organizations innovate by leveraging the power of employee ideas. He can be reached at 1.778.386.5167.