empathy

When Empathy Hurts Your Feedback

Empathy is the signature skill of good feedback. But it has a silent cost.

Ask others whether they’d prefer to get feedback from someone who’s highly empathetic, and the answer would be a resounding yes. The ability to empathize with others is a critical leadership skill, especially when conversations turn tense. These individuals can anticipate how others are likely to think and feel, are well-equipped to express genuine care and compassion, and find ways to communicate in a constructive manner.

There’s just one problem: Empathy might be derailing your leadership effectiveness.

The underside of empathy

According to a recent study, high-empathy leaders actually became less effective after giving negative feedback. The higher these individuals scored on standard questionnaires designed to measure empathy, the more distressed and inattentive they became after giving the feedback, leading them to report that they became less effective at their jobs and less able to inspire their teams.

In a follow-up study, researchers also found that the more upset the recipients of the feedback seemed to be, the worse high-empathy leaders performed at tasks designed to measure critical leadership skills such as time management and the ability to focus. 

The simple explanation is that feedback acts as an emotional contagion. High-empathy feedback givers are more likely to “catch” the negative reactions of others and take these signals to heart. They are quick to observe and absorb how feedback affects others, especially when there’s a demonstrable impact on the moods and minds of their recipients.

Researchers observed a stark contrast among low-empathy feedback givers. Unlike their more empathetic peers, these individuals were less likely to register how their feedback landed and did not bear the brunt of its message. As a result, low-empathy feedback givers did not experience a dip in their performance and even reported higher energy levels after giving feedback to employees.

In essence, we have a performance conversation paradox: Those who are best suited to give helpful feedback end up harming themselves. For these highly empathetic leaders, giving feedback is an energy-depleting experience that leaves them less prepared to do their own jobs even as they enable others to better perform theirs.

Helping those who help others

There are ways to protect against the costs incurred by high-empathy feedback givers. The following practices can help:

Schedule strategically

For some leaders, it might be necessary to carve out recovery time after providing negative feedback. This could mean giving feedback before a scheduled break or at the end of the workday.

Create a buffer

If feedback can’t be calendared this way, leaders should acknowledge the hit to their overall effectiveness and perform subsequent tasks that don’t require heaving lifting. Check email. Catch up on reading. Look over meeting notes. Avoid anything that requires a high degree of cognition or complexity.

Forgive yourself

Rather than beat themselves up for falling down, high-empathy leaders should take a moment to reset and reflect. True, their empathy powers may come at a cost. But they also produce a measure of comfort and connection for others in a moment of vulnerability. Better to focus on how others have been served and strengthened by this type of leadership than to give into frustration.

Empathy is the signature skill of effective feedback, but it has an underside. By identifying its hidden costs, leaders can positively impact others without taking a personal hit.

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