Six Ways Empathy can Sabotage your Effectiveness

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on  Unsplash

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

I believe we all have a “superpower.” Another way to put it might be that we all have one or two unique gifts or exceptional strengths, something that we excel at with little practice or effort on our part. Our superpower is that character trait or innate ability that comes natural to us and makes us a stronger achiever and contributor because we seem to have an inherent knack for it. I also believe that any strength taken to the extreme can become a weakness, and so we must learn to use our superpowers with discretion.

Personally, my superpower is empathy! I am a super empathizer and have been for as long as I can remember. I can walk through any workplace for a few minutes and somehow “feel” what people are feeling. I can talk to a person and immediately begin to see the world through their eyes. And I can feel people’s pain to the point that, unless I make an intentional effort to control it, it can be overwhelming when exposed to too much negativity. On the positive side, however, feeling the pain of others motivates me that much more to help them overcome whatever troubles or challenges they are facing.

This ability has been a huge blessing to me, personally and professionally. As a coach and confidant to countless people, it has given me an edge in accomplishing my mission of transforming people’s lives. As a professional facilitator, it has helped me understand the opposing views in meetings I have facilitated and help people find common ground to resolve the real points of disagreement. As a speaker and consultant, it has helped me tailor my approach and delivery in real time to ensure my communication is received as intended. Finally, my empathy has opened up a world of possibilities to me because it has made me, I believe, an above average listener, simply because I listen, not only with my ears but with my mind and my heart.

I have written about the value of empathy before and am a firm believer that a leader or teammate without empathy is missing an essential piece of the puzzle that would allow them to influence and serve others for their ultimate benefit. You don’t have to be a super empathizer to be a good leader or team member, but you do have to practice empathy at a significant level. Hence, we should all be doing as much as we can to climb higher on the empathy scale. However, while empathy is a good thing, as mentioned above, there are some things we all have to watch out for, because too much of a good thing can become a bad thing.

In this post, I’d like to list a few of the “downsides” of letting this strength go unchecked and point out a few side effects to watch out for as you practice empathy. As someone who is fairly high on the empathy scale, I have experienced every one of these potential downsides. In some cases, I have learned valuable lessons and have made course corrections. But, quite honestly, in some cases, I am still a work in progress and still experience some of these unless I remain intentional and vigilant in avoiding them.

As wonderful as empathy is as a virtue, here are its potential negative side effects:

  1. You want everybody to be happy – Because you feel other people’s pain, the tendency is to want to keep everyone happy all the time, which is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes you can’t remove other people’s pain, and sometimes doing so actually harms them more in the long run. The flip side of empathizing with the pain of others so intensely is that you become so preoccupied with and demoralized by their experience of suffering that you become less effective at helping them get rid of it. Often, once you know what needs to be done, not feeling the pain of others is the best path to help them begin addressing it.

  2. You misread the cues – You trust and rely on your ability to read the non-verbal cues to the point that you become overly sensitized and misread the cues. This is particularly important to look out for when the other person is from a different culture where body language has a completely different meaning than your own, but it can also apply to people whose personality type or communication style is very different than yours.

  3. You let people off the hook – It’s easy to not hold a person to high standards when you understand and empathize with why they couldn’t meet the standard and what got in their way. Excuses seem much more legitimate when you see them through the other person’s eyes. Despite this, you should do your best to hold others up to higher standards and allow the possibility of them surprising even themselves with capability they didn’t know they had.

  4. You don’t compel others to improve – People with problems naturally like talking to those who can empathize with them. It makes them feel understood by giving them a “pressure release valve,” but it doesn’t compel them to behave differently, so they end up back where they started a short time later.

  5. You absorb toxins and become toxic yourself – The process of empathizing with others always leaves a residue of their pain and suffering with you. When the word gets out that you are a good listener and you help people feel better, people will flock to you from all directions. You will become known as “organizational toxin handler.” Eventually, you will find that the psychological and emotional “toxins” that you absorb on a regular basis will create a toxic environment for you. At this point, you won’t be able to effectively help others and you won’t be having a good time yourself, and this will continue indefinitely unless you take the time to “detox” and intentionally focus on maintaining a regular self-care routine.

  6. You don’t resolve conflicts effectively – While those with a high degree of empathy can be great at conflict resolution, it is important to make sure you not only understand the opposing points of view, but help them see the other point of view and actively look for a third alternative. You must be able to cultivate a sense of empathy in others, as well as practice your own innate ability. Otherwise, you will leave everyone feeling validated and yet further entrenched in their point of view, and because everyone gets a sense that you agree with them, everyone will think you are only on their side. 

So, there are 6 ways that the superpower of empathy can go wrong if taken too far or used without discretion. What are some other superpowers that you yourself have, or that you can think of, with respect to leadership or organizational effectiveness? What potential side effects do these superpowers have? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author: Amir Ghannad is an international keynote speaker, author of The Transformative Leader, leadership consultant, culture transformation champion, and founder of The Ghannad Group. He has made it his life's work to guide leaders and equip them with the tools, skills, and the mindset necessary to create extraordinary workplace cultures that deliver breakthrough results. Download his free e-book, titled 5 Practical Steps to Make Your Culture Transformation Stick by clicking here.

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As always, have a great week! May you Boldly Declare, Courageously Pursue, and Abundantly Achieve the Extraordinary!

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