Empathy and Mindfulness in leadership (and life)

Empathy is one of the featured qualities of effective leaders in much of the leadership literature.

Henry Mintzberg lists the collaborative mindset, requiring empathy and insight into a network of relationships, as one of The Five Minds of a Manager.
Managing self: the reflective mind-set
Managing organizations: the analytic mind-set
Managing context: the worldly mind-set
Managing relationships: the collaborative mind-set
Managing change: the action mind-set

5 minds MinzbergDaniel Goleman identifies empathy as one of the five elements that define emotional intelligence, required by all effective leaders, and describes it as:
“the ability to identify with and understand the wants, needs, and viewpoints of those around you. Empathetic people avoid stereotyping and judging too quickly, and they live their lives in an open, honest way”.

Goleman also draws attention to the work of Paul Ekman in distinguishing between three forms of empathy:

Empathy typesCognitive empathy – knowing how the other person feels and what they might be thinking. Sometimes called ‘perspective-taking’, which can help in a negotiation or in motivating people
Emotional empathy – when you feel physically along with the other person, as though their emotions were contagious; depending largely on the mirror neuron system
Compassionate empathy – also called “empathic concern” – in which we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them, but are moved to help, if needed (or not, if ‘tough love’ is required).

These three types of empathy can be seen as a reflection of the three types of mind described in mindfulness literature, as illustrated in the header image above.

This in turn can also be considered in relation to Aristotle’s Virtue Continuum, in which the balanced middle ground between a deficit and excess (vices) in a given quality defines the ‘virtuous’ state we should aspire to.

‘Ruinous empathy’ features alongside ‘radical candour‘ in Kim Scott’s analysis of what makes a great boss. She suggests that (emotional) empathy mishandled could be the single largest source of mistakes made by managers in dealing with their teams.

‘Empathy mapping‘ is a key tool employed in design thinking in which user requirements are considered in the light of what a persona sees, thinks, does, feels, and hears, along with their pain versus gain points with regard to the product or service being developed or refined.

In need of empathy?

The need for effective empathy has been a recurring theme in discussions with various of my non-profit clients in recent months, and it has arisen in quite different circumstances, including:
– a CEO dealing with resistance to cultural changes required in the organisation
– a manager dealing with a director seemingly undermining her work
– a team leader meeting reluctance by some team members to help share the load of carrying out new procedures necessitated by COVID-19
– a recently appointed manager charged with implementing a substantial ‘improvement’ program facing resistance by a long-serving team member (with connections on the governing board) to changing ‘the way we do things around here’

The differences in physical and cultural settings, personalities, reporting relationships, history and other dimensions make it impossible to suggest a single solution that would meet all needs, however some common elements can be discerned. There are communication blockages happening in these challenging relationships, and as with all communications – it takes two. Gaps in understanding and alignment are leading to frustration and reduced or poor productivity. Without resolution, conflict may escalate.

No external actor can fix such problems, and besides, my role is rightly limited to facilitating and supporting reflective practice and action decisions by my clients.

Empathy mapping adaptation

To aid them in that endeavour, one of the tools I suggested might be helpful in improving their understanding of and insight into the perspective of the other party is an adaptation of the empathy map mentioned above. The template below was offered as a reflective tool, to aid them in thinking through the areas in which they were experiencing friction or resistance in their relationship with their colleague, team member, or manager.

Empathy Canvas

Notes completed in such a template may only be sketchy, but they can help you to look at the situation from the other’s perspective, and to promote greater alignment.  Gaining empathy by itself is not sufficient of course, and implementing a course of action based on your insights is a necessary next step.

Empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work”                                                      Daniel Goleman

[If the other party is a sociopath however (and they do exist out there), then an empathy map is unlikely to be of great value. Consult specialist HR advice if you believe your problem is that extreme.]

I will make some further observations on the ‘change resistance’ client issues listed above in a future post.

Other empathy mapping applications

The adaptation of a tool originally created for use in product or service design illustrates the potential for empathy mapping to be adapted to other purposes and situations that would benefit from insight into another party’s perspective. Try using it for other activities as varied as advocacy work, stakeholder relations, contract negotiations, counselling, coaching and mentoring.

Being mindful in this way will help in every human relationship you have, both at work and beyond.

See also:



How to use the Empathy Map

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