Home All We Don’t Need More Empathy in Leadership

We Don’t Need More Empathy in Leadership

written by Daphne Scott 27 January 2016

Dr. Daphne Scott , MAPP 2015, is an executive leadership coach who specializes in leadership development and providing solutions to organizations to create conscious positive cultures. As well as being a highly credentialed and published physical therapist, sheearned her Masters degree in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her weekly podcast and blog. Full bio. Her articles for Positive Psychology News are here.

The latest buzz in leadership is all about empathy, with many calling for more of it in our leadership style. The theory goes that if leaders were more empathetic, we wouldn’t have situations like the no-holds-barred culture that Kantor and Streitfeld described at Amazon. But is a lack of empathy really the problem?

The idea that we need more empathy in leadership implies that leaders are somehow consistently void of a certain level of empathy. Is it possible that people who get promoted are missing an empathy gene? This is unlikely because there is evidence suggesting that those with pro-social behaviors at work are more likely to succeed. Therefore, if promotion is any guide, these individuals must have been able to foster some thread of supportive behavior throughout their careers, as Adam Grant describes in his book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

Moreover, if leaders have more empathy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be used to serve the highest good. Buffone, Poulin, and Bloom suggest that empathy can actually steer us to become more violent towards groups that we see as different from ourselves and to protect only those who are like us or closest to us. For example, we are more likely to help a family member than to help a friend or a stranger.

What Does LeaderShip Need?

As I consider leadership in this technological age, which allows for a screen between ourselves and another person, I can’t help but think that it isn’t more empathy we need, but rather more connection. Perhaps our naturally occurring empathy is being blocked by a lack of connection with others. For leaders who exist in bubbles of minimal feedback and isolating hierarchical organizational structures, this may be even more relevant.

Relationships at work support us in many ways. In a twenty year follow-up study on job-related psychosocial factors as predictors of mortality, Shirom and colleagues found that those who believed they had emotional support in the workplace tended to live longer than those who didn’t feel that they had emotional support from their co-workers. Other studies have found that when we are able to connect with one another, we are more likely to foster an environment that supports learning and more likely to experience positive emotion. In addition, in studies by Stephens and Carmeli and colleagues, this connection leads teams to experience greater levels of creativity and collaboration. For the organization as a whole, this means greater engagement from everyone, which impacts the bottom line.

Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan describes high-quality connections (HQC’s) as the life-blood of a thriving organization. She also describes the means by which we can create them, noting that these connections can occur even in brief moments of simple human interaction. Instead of telling leaders to have more empathy, perhaps we should foster improved relationships by getting out from behind those computer screens. When we do, it may just bring us back to our inherently empathetic selves.

How Do We Create High-Quality Connections at Work?

The table below summarizes the strategies described by Jane Dutton and colleagues, especially in her book, Energize Your Workplace, for building high-quality connections.

Strategy Behaviors
Respectful Engagement Engaging the other person in a way that sends a message of value and worth:

  • not interrupting
  • being present
  • withholding judgment
  • listening for what the person wants
Task Enabling Helping/facilitating another person’s successful performance:

  • offering input
  • advocating
  • offering flexibility
Trusting Conveying to the other person that you believe they will meet expectations and can be relied upon:

  • keeping agreements
  • sharing resources
  • seeking input
Playing Participating in activities with the intention of having fun:

  • letting go of an outcome
  • engaging in an old activity in a fun way (i.e. musical chairs)




Bloom, P. (2013). Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.

Buffone, A. E., & Poulin, M. J. (2014). Empathy, target distress, and neurohormone genes interact to predict aggression for others–Even without provocation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 40(11), 1406-1422. Abstract.

Carmeli, A., Brueller, A., & Dutton, J. (2009). Linking high-quality interpersonal relationships, psychological safety, and learning behaviors in the workplace. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 26, 81-98. Abstract.

Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Grant, A. (2013). Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. Viking Press.

Kantor, J., & Streitfeld, D. (2015, August 16). Inside Amazon: Wresting big ideas in a bruising workplace. The New York Times, p. 1A.

Shirom, A., Toker, S., Alkaly, Y., Jacobson, O., & Balicer, R. (2011). Work-based predictors of mortality: A 20-year follow-up of healthy employees. Health Psychology, 30(3), 268.

Stephens, J.P., Heaphy, E.D., Carmeli, A., Spreitzer, G.M., & Dutton, J.E. (2013). Relationship quality and virtuousness: Emotional carrying capacity as a source of individual and team resilience. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49(1), 13-41.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Empathy courtesy of erix!
In a tech bubble courtesy of Mr.Thomas

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Angus Skinner 28 January 2016 - 10:26 am

Interesting piece.

Thank you Daphne.

I am struck also by the ‘respect’ paid to ‘respectful’, as it were. Of course we should always be polite but surely some opinions and behaviours need to be disrespected, and that made clear? Polite, from polished (knock off the rough edges had some origins in Edinburgh as well as France) served all enough.

‘Respectfulness’ seems to come from the ethic of rights. Yet I do not need to ‘respect’ all views; some I deeply disagree with.

Good article.



Daphne 28 January 2016 - 7:59 pm

Hi Angus!

Thanks for your comment on my post and for taking the time to read it. I think you may be making an important distinction about “being” respectful versus agreeing with another’s point of view. Maybe we should make it more like a verb. I’m respecting; like running or breathing. I can certainly be respecting and disagree…and often have. 🙂 Thanks so much again for your comments.

Judy Krings 28 January 2016 - 9:26 pm

I enjoyed your article, Daphne, and also Angus’ comment. I particularly enjoyed your chart and will pay it forward. Context is important as well as reciprocity. Thanks much.

Daphne 29 January 2016 - 7:01 am

Thanks Judy and I couldn’t agree more on the importance of context.

Judy Krings 30 January 2016 - 7:29 am

My pleasure, Daphne and thanks, again.


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