This week I participated in an emotional intelligence assessment and debrief by an experienced coach. One of the key takeaways for me was the need to balance empathy with assertiveness in the workplace. There are many other skills to develop in the realm of managing our emotions, but for leaders in organizations empathy and assertiveness are a powerful combination.
Empathic leaders take the time to really understand the thoughts and feelings of colleagues without judgment, building relationships of trust and openness. Truly listening to others and demonstrating an understanding of how they feel, even in situations of disagreement and conflict, is to really “get” the depth and impact of the issues of the day on real people. Empathy is a rewarding skill for the servant leader to develop. Some benefits accrue to the leader (trust, loyalty, commitment), but the service aspect of empathy directly benefits others in the organization, not only yourself.
The risk associated with the strength of empathy is that it could be taken too far and become out of balance with other skills needed by leaders today. Thus, empathy must be balanced with assertiveness. I’m reminded of the distinction between compassion and idiot compassion, the notion that even a good thing like compassion can become a liability without boundaries. Creating a kind, trusting environment is something to aspire to in organizational life, but empathy can only be practiced if people also speak up! Otherwise there’s nothing to work with. “Telling it like it is”, from the leader’s point of view, is just as important as listening. Having taken into account a multitude of views and feelings, the leader ultimately has to make decisions and communicate with confidence.
My own leadership balance tips slightly too far into empathy, so I have to be very intentional about being more assertive. I’ve actually been working on this for a few years now and finding my own best balance will likely be a lifelong project for me. Recently, I took my assertiveness too far and voiced outrage after a meeting that went poorly. I felt ambushed in the meeting and in “telling it like it is” I damaged some relationships. In subsequent conversations to repair the damage while also maintaining my assertiveness around the business issue, I learned something very interesting in feedback from others. From their point of view, my overextension of assertiveness was not the end of the world and made me human. Now I was on the receiving side of empathy. That experience demonstrated to me that the whole organizational context is big enough to support leaders taking risks to find their own best balance between empathy and assertiveness.
Great leaders continue to improve their technical and soft skills. Emotional intelligence is not set in stone and the skillset can be honed over a lifetime. What will you do to bring your own skills around empathy and assertiveness into balance? Go out and try a new approach this week.