4 ways being empathetic can tank your success at work

A woman is advising her colleague at a consulting table.
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To be an effective leader, many managers are told to be more empathetic, which means understanding and recognizing other's perspectives and feelings. Studies also note that demonstrating empathy enhances employee engagement, boosts work performance and leads to higher job satisfaction.

It's obvious why this skill is essential to leaders — it's difficult to manage a team that you don't understand. But being empathetic has its drawbacks, according to co-authors Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter.

In their book, "The Mind of a Leader," the authors highlight four ways empathy can lead to poor business decisions and ultimately tank your success: It can distort judgement, hamper diversity, become too narrow and lead to distress.

1. Empathy can distort your judgement

Research from Yale University shows how empathy can distort your way of thinking, write the authors.

In a study, two groups of people were tasked with listening to a recording of a terminally ill boy describing his pain. One group was asked to emotionally identify with the boy and the other group was told to listen objectively. Once the recording ended, each participant was asked whether they would move the boy up a prioritized treatment list that was created and managed by medical doctors.

In the emotional group, 75 percent of participants decided to move him up the list, against the advice of medical professionals who warned that the decision could put other individuals' lives at risk. In the objective group, only 33 percent of subjects did the same.

"As leaders, empathy may cloud our moral judgement," write the authors. "It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions."

2. Empathy can hamper diversity

"Humans empathize more easily with people similar to themselves," write the authors.

For example, you're more likely to kill and eat a chicken than you are a baby seal with "big round eyes" because the seal resembles you much more closely than the chicken, according to Hougaard and Carter. You're also more likely to empathize with a neighbor whose car was stolen than a homeless person on the street lacking any material possessions.

"We unconsciously empathize with colleagues who are similar to us," write the authors. "We tend to offer them better assignments and better positions, all unknowingly."

This tendency bleeds into the hiring process, the authors write, deceasing diversity and potentially limiting innovation and creativity on a team.

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3. Empathy can be too constricting

It's difficult to truly empathize with more than one person at a time, let alone several people.

"The mind — or heart — simply can't hold such different emotions at the same time," the authors write.

But as a leader, Hougaard and Carter say that it's your duty to simultaneously consider the many ideas and feelings of those under you. They continue, "Empathy is simply too constricting to help us effectively navigate multiple perspectives and concerns."

4. Empathy can be emotionally draining

Imagine being an emergency room doctor and being immersed in conscious trauma. "Taking on the suffering and troubles of others is tough," write the authors, and in some situations too much empathy may lead to distress.

However, there are many times when members of your team will undergo a challenging situation, either in or out of the office. They may lose a big client or be involved in conflict with a colleague, write the authors.

Regardless of the situation, if you take on all of our employees' anger, hurt, disappointment and frustration, you will soon become exhausted, say the authors.

"Empathy in leadership can drain us."

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