How much empathy is too much empathy?

Lots of leaders have been telling me that applying empathy at work has been their main focus in the last 18 months. But they are also telling me that they feel drained by taking on vast amounts of emotions their people are going through in this still uncertain and ambiguous world. Conversations around regulating empathy to protect leaders from burn out are part of almost every coaching session I have with leaders and intact teams. So let’s have the conversation today.

What is empathy?

It’s often described as ‘putting yourself into someone else’s shoes’ or ‘projecting yourself into somebody’s mind to feel what they feel’. The word empathy comes from the German word ‘Einfuehlung’ broadly translated as ‘feeling into’. Brene Brown describes empathy as ‘feeling with or alongside someone’, creating a connection with someone rather than simply responding.

What does an empathetic leader look like?

Empathetic leaders have low egos and put their people first. That doesn’t mean they don’t set expectations or avoid tough conversations. In fact, they usually create openness and communicate effectively, but they achieve success through people by empowering them and creating enthusiasm. Empathetic leaders listen to understand instead of responding and build strong personal relationships. They make people feel valued and understood.

Are we all in the same boat?

Throughout the last 18 months, I have been hearing the phrase ‘We are all in the same boat’ referring to having the same experience with the global pandemic. I disagree because I believe that we are all experiencing a similar storm, but our vessels look vastly different. Everyone’s personal and work situation is different, some countries are still in lockdown in mid-2021 whereas others are living a ‘normal’ life and people are experiencing the hardship and grief differently.

I am working with a senior leader who led his department through a major restructure due to the fallout of COVID and he had to make dozens of people redundant. He has put all of his energy into the process and conversations to make it as easy as possible for the people affected and dialled up his empathy like never before. He is proud of how he helped his people through this but he is also close to burnout.

Another leader I coach has shifted her entire workforce to work from home, has created flexibility for a hybrid set up, increased one on one conversations and check-ins and is always open to listening to what is going on for her people personally. She said to me that whilst her team is appreciative, she doesn’t know how long she can stay strong for everyone.

These are only two of many similar stories and what these leaders are going through is coined ‘empathy burnout’ also described as being overwhelmed and exhausted by taking on too many negative emotions from others.

When leaders feel they are burning out by constantly taking on the burden of others and it happens consistently, that’s when empathy is getting too much and can have a negative effect.

How to apply the right amount of empathy?

I am not saying to just stop being empathetic. Instead, I suggest applying some strategies so that leaders feel less exhausted and burdened.

Feel with people but set boundaries:

Imagine you are helping someone who is distraught or upset. It’s like they are at the bottom of a well and can’t get out and ask for your help. You climb into the well, acknowledge their hardship, avoid judging them and understand their situation. You might hug them, feel with them and feel their burden, helping them out of the well. Taking on their emotions connects and help them out of the well. If you do this over and over again, many times a day with lots of different people, you get tired, physically and mentally and it doesn’t leave any strength for your own challenges. Soon you are too tired to help anyone out of the well. Sounds familiar?

Instead, try and have a similar approach when it comes to listening, to understand, acknowledge and avoid judging. But have an internal understanding that you ‘can’t drag everyone out of the well’ and equip your people with trust, confidence and the skills to help themselves out of the well when they are ready and strong. You have the same ‘Einfuehlung’, but the ladder they use helps you to stay mentally healthy and helps them to find ways to help themselves.

Some examples of applying empathy and the right amount of empathy:

Listen to understand. Ask open questions and simply acknowledge what they are saying. Often this is enough as people experiencing negative emotions need to voice how they feel. By talking about their emotions, we call this ‘name it to tame it’, the negative feeling already alleviates.

Stop being an advice-giving maniac. Because we are constantly trying to help, our first reaction to someone in distress is telling them what to do. Understand their situation first (in their service), ask open questions and gauge if they are ready to find their own solution. That is more often the case than we think. It takes the pressure off us to have to help or save them and empowers your people to find their own solution to their challenges. This is a coaching approach to conversations.

Stop comparing. Don’t reply with ‘Well, at least…’ when someone shares their challenge with you. It doesn’t help to compare their world to someone who might be in an even worse situation. They feel what they feel, just acknowledge and understand.

I can help you, but I can’t save you. It’s a shift in mindset that it’s not possible to save other people but we can assist them to manage their situation. Listen to understand what is going on for them. Refer them to a mental health professional if you feel it’s necessary and give them resources and tools to get the right help. Keep on checking in with them.

Emotional regulation. Gain insight and understanding into others but recenter yourself by using mindfulness and being in the moment. Emotional regulation protects you from taking on too much of their emotions, but you still hold the connection. You are allowed to step away from too many negative emotions to look after your own health.

Putting yourself in other people’s shoes. Especially when it comes to delivering bad news, restructures and redundancies, put yourself into the situation of others. Often what they need is someone who understands but is strong in delivering the message and offering support and solutions. Your strengths and being centred represents the ladder you give them when down in the well. The leader I spoke about earlier, who had to make many people redundant, explained that he applied the attitude of ‘setting them free with a plan and new opportunities going forward’. The employees all knew the redundancies were coming, and letting them go set them free and put an end to the ambiguous situation.

If you feel the burden of taking on too many emotions from your team members, you might be applying too much empathy. Don’t stop being empathetic but chose some of the examples above as strategies for you to stay out of the well and become a giver of ladders.

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Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert