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The Toxic Empathy Narrative is Hurting Leaders

You have no idea how much time I spend during coaching sessions and workshops reassuring leaders that they do have empathy. If you don't have your head screwed on, the corporate world can be a dangerous place because they will sell you narratives that will negatively impact you but make money for the consultants and facilitators. HR, please protect your people! 


We have sold the empathy narrative to everyone despite having zero evidence of its necessity to be a good leader. But never mind that, let's look at who should be looking at their empathy level and let's ask some questions. 


What conditions are associated with low empathy? Narcissistic personality disorder, Machiavellianism, sociopaths psychopaths, borderline personality disorder, alexithymia, or autism. Are you in one of those categories? If not, you are not likely to have a problem with empathy. 


But here is how you can put the gurus making you feel like crap talking about the importance of empathy back in their place. Ask these questions:


  • Can you show me the scientific evidence of the importance of empathy to be a successful leader in this particular job, team, and under this particular condition? 

  • How much empathy do I need? Where is the literature supporting that? 

  • What type of empathy do I need? Cognitive, emotional or compassionate? How much of each? 

  • If empathy is so important why don't we measure that during recruitment or as part of the leadership development program? Psychology has the tool for that.

  • If you don't know how each leader measures on the empathy scale how can you tell them that they need to be more empathetic? How can we expect them to improve when there is no measurement of it? Is it the subjective opinion of their manager?

  • What are the positive sides of low or lack of empathy in leadership? We cannot just produce articles about the positives of having high empathy because it immediately smells bias. Everything has pros and cons and I have never read a data or an article stating the positive aspects of low or lack of empathy. That itself is a massive red flag. 


When you start asking these questions I guarantee you that they will not have answers so you can say "If you don't know why you want me to do something, how much I need to have of that, or where I am right now about what where you want me to be, how can I deliver that?" The conversation ends there. 


We have fed people with so much nonsense in the world of corporations that now we need to spend time correcting the decade of misinformation and the damage it did to people. You should see people's faces when they say "I think I have empathy but I am not the type who is going to cry or respond to people's problems with emotions." 


And you shouldn't! Empathy is not all about that! If you are not the emotional type you are likely to express cognitive or compassionate empathy which leads to the same result of; Helping people. But these gurus don't know that and they want you to have an emotional reaction to everything. 

If you want to discuss and help leaders with understanding their empathy figure out which is their dominant style, how they use it, how they can communicate it to others, and how that particular style serves their team. 


Don't fall for every corporate narrative because if you do, they will make you feel like crap. 


Here is another agenda you should be asking questions about:





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