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As a leader, you need to know the concepts of empathy and sympathy

In this article, we show why it is important for a leader to use empathy and sympathy in practice and how it affects results.


When it comes to leadership, we often throw around the words sympathy and empathy, usually in some abstract way, to try to get a sense of what they mean in practice. Rarely, however, do we see anyone demonstrate in a real context what empathy is and how it differs from sympathy, especially as they are often used (incorrectly) as synonyms. Which of the two is manifested in a leader determines how much they will support or undermine team members' efforts, influence team culture and affect business results. But let's dig deeper right away!  


A naval model for selecting leaders - based on empathy and sympathy


The model below is based on a decision matrix used by one of the US Navy’s unit, named NAVY SEAL (a unit that can be deployed in both sea, land and air operations) to select leaders. In this article, we have used low trust instead of sympathy, which in this case is defined as: feeling pity and sadness at someone else's misfortune, while we have used high trust instead of empathy, which is defined as: the ability to understand someone else's feelings. Both definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary. These two can be used to illustrate performance, which is defined as: the demonstration of technical ability.  


Four types of leaders are identified, according to the areas in which they are most likely to manifest themselves. These four types show specific behaviours that can be found in any person: 

  • Parent: Overworked, doing too much work in the team, solving too many problems for others. 
  • Slave: Suffocating, doing everyone else's work while not getting on with his own tasks, always putting other people's problems first.  
  • Counsellor: Overly supportive, endlessly talks things through, his/her inertia bring him/her nowhere. 
  • Coach: Balances his own work with the team, helps the team to be self-reliant, but at the same time solves his own problems.  

To put it in some context, let's look at an example:

In a project in which the main task of the consultant was to support senior managers, one of the senior managers fell absolutely into the parent category. However noble his intentions, he repeatedly fell into the trap of taking on too much of his team's work. This meant that the projects he was responsible for leading or contributing to were delayed or completely stalled because, while he was trying to solve other people's problems, he had less time for his own tasks and so he didn't finish them.  


The impact of each type of leader on the organisation 


If we stick to the revised leadership selection model mentioned above and apply it to a collective, we can show how each type of leader affects the team culture. 


Four organisational states emerge, which are associated with certain behaviours that can be observed in the culture of any team or organisation: 

  • Directed to: Underdeveloped strategic thinking, some flexibility, senior managers likely to solve problems rather than the team. 
  • Dependent: Lack of strategic thinking, learned inertia, team expects senior managers to solve problems for them.
  • Reassured: Over-supported, likely to think they are performing well because lack of objective metrics means the team does not see real performance.
  • Autonomous: They are proactive, like to experiment, have ownership, so are accountable, flexible and persistent. 

To continue the example we just gave above: 


During the coaching sessions with the senior manager, it became clear that he intervened so often because he did not want his team to be overwhelmed, as this was the first full-time job for many team members, and the senior manager wanted all team members to have a good first experience. From this we can see that the senior manager really had a noble intention. 


However, what was not taken into account by the senior manager was that as a result, he was constantly "training" the team to go to the manager for each challenge and ask him to solve it. This not only reduced the professional development of the team members, and therefore their value in the labour market, but also put the company at a market disadvantage, as it cannot really focus on what is its own responsibility. Once both the senior manager and the team realised this problem, the new objective was to turn the parent into a coach and the team into an autonomous one.  


The impact of each type of leader on the company 


If we continue with the US Navy model and denote effectiveness on the Y-axis, defined as: the degree of success of the project. And on the X-axis we denote efficiency, defined as: the best use of resources. In this way, we can examine the impact of organisational state on business results:

  • High cost/high return: exhausts resources, achieves high results, but is expensive and short-lived. 
  • High cost/low return: exhausts resources, produces poor results and is expensive. 
  • Low cost/low return: hardly invests resources and is wasteful because it is not enough to make progress. 
  • Low cost/high return: optimises the resources available and achieves sustainable results.   

The team in the example above was a Customer Support team whose sole task was to resolve problems received from customers. The problem in the team was the distribution of tasks, as the senior manager wanted to solve all the problems for his team, but as no one person can solve all of them, very few cases were solved in practice. As soon as the parent became a coach and the team became autonomous, the resolution rate of the problems received suddenly jumped. In fact, the whole customer service process was reworked to make the team more efficient with the same staffing.


This is the impact that a team leader can have on the team/department or the whole organisation. Now that we are clear about the different types of leaders, it is time to classify ourselves.  


How can you determine which type you belong to? 

  • Ask for feedback from those around you.
  • Make a note of what you did well.
  • Notice what you still need to work on.
  • Take some steps to improve along the way.


If you would like to learn about other types of leaders, such as the bully, the micromanager, the puppet and the leader, and explore their impact on culture and business results, you may find the article used as a source for this article a very useful read. And if you want to understand the impact that a lack of empathy can have on an organisation, the article below is also recommended.


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