• Sara Tiefenbrun

Empathy in leadership - where do we draw the line?

Empathy helps us relate to others. Vulnerability makes us relatable.


If you're working on building a personal brand, a degree of emotional exposure is necessary to drive a meaningful connection. But how much is too much?


Instagram is full of marketing gurus dropping ‘truth bombs’ and winning audiences in the process.


On LinkedIn, the level of exposure is lower, but there’s still an appetite for truth-telling and irreverence.


Smart communicators are able to decipher which of their stories are appropriate for a broad audience and which ones should be reserved for more intimate face-to-face situations.


Glimpses of the private lives of our leaders


In the last couple of months as we've been physically isolated our online experiences have given us glimpses into world’s never seen before; our colleagues living rooms, Jack Black’s back garden, Simon Schama’s chaotic bookshelves. These new worlds help us form opinions about people and decide how relatable they are.


Perhaps one of the most surprising places to come online was Jacinda Arden’s bedroom. The New Zealand PM recorded a Facebook Q&A live just before lockdown sitting on her bed, wearing an old sweatshirt having just put her daughter to bed.


This moment resonated with parents who were also at home juggling work commitments and looking after the kids as the world changed around them.


By allowing the world into her bedroom, the Prime Minister acknowledged that we were in extraordinary times. Her approached showed empathy towards her audience, modelling the actions she was asking them to take.


Beyond that, by appearing sitting on her bed, Jacinda seemed to be telling us it’s okay to expose your home life to your work audience. The professional and the old sweatshirt can co-exist.


During the recent crisis, it has become clear that leaders who embrace vulnerability and demonstrate compassion can earn greater trust.


What kind of leaders do we trust?


When Roy Morgan surveyed almost 1000 Australians at the end of March 2020, Jacinda Arden came out on top as the most trusted political leader. An impressive feat considering she’s not even involved in Australian politics! Interesting to read today that she’s been invited to the next Australian National Cabinet meeting.


At number two and three on the trust charts were Penny Wong then Daniel Andrews, four and five were the NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Labour Minister Tanya Plibersek.


With trust in politicians being an ongoing challenge, it’s encouraging to see that politicians can distinguish themselves by using empathetic and transparent communication at a tool.


It’s also interesting to note that four out of five of our most trusted politicians are female. Could this open the door to a more empathetic feminine style of leadership gaining approval? I hope so.


In a recent online get together of alumnae of The Compass Leadership program, women shared their stories of witnessing leadership in a crisis. At times of crisis, our work relationships can become more significant to our wellbeing.


Leaders who showed compassion and vulnerability were able to rally their teams much more so than those who didn't. In fact, unkind, disconnected leadership was last straw for some, who chose to resign.


Some people think empathy in the workplace is a joke


When Scott Morrison paid consultants Futureye to gain a greater understanding of how the farming community was experiencing the drought in 2019 he was mocked having to pay to discover that he needed to show empathy. The assumption seems to be that empathy is innate and not worth investing in.


Even the founder of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence Marc Brackett, PhD admitted he experiences hostility as a result of his work exploring emotional intelligence. Even within the academic field, there are leaders who pride themselves on resisting pressure to become more emotionally intelligent. They only want their team to learn how to manage their own emotions so that the old school leaders can carry on as before.


A simple equation


The thought leader, Brené Brown says empathy is a skill set, which can be taught. It has four parts; perspective taking, staying out of judgement, recognising emotion and communicating emotion. Demonstrating empathy or vulnerability doesn't necessarily require exposing any personal details.


Seth Godin says what matters is the ability: “to imagine what someone else would want, what they might believe, what story would resonate with them." We tailor our communication towards what will serve our target audience.


It’s a simple equation: empathy + service = trust.


When deciding how much to expose your own vulnerabilities, the question to ask is: who do you serve? And how will this emotional exposure help them?


Empathy for your audience or your team will help them trust you. Trust is an essential ingredient for effective communication.


While we are living through a peculiar time, there are encouraging signs that a new form of more emotionally honest leadership is emerging.

Image credit: Annette Wagner (artist), Samara Clifford (photographer) Wunder Gym

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© 2020 Sara Tiefenbrun.