A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
July 21st, 2013 by William

The Empathy Test

There’s been a lot written about leaders needing to exhibit empathy if they really want to be successful. It’s a necessary element of servant leadership. The dictionary definition of empathy is: understanding another’s situation or feelings without losing track of our own emotional and mental state, or; the capability to share and understand another’s emotions and feelings, characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes.”

Like the above definitions, every article I’ve read describes empathy from the clinical aspect. I understand them but I’m still left with two questions. First, what exactly is empathy and second, how does it manifest itself in everyday life, i.e., in people’s behaviors?

In his 2011 article, “Are You Empathic? 3 Types of Empathy and What They Mean – When is Empathy a Good Thing, and when is it a Bad Thing?” Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D. tells us there are really three types of empathy.

“The first is a purely cognitive form of empathy that can be described as ‘Perspective-Taking.’ This is being able to see things from another’s point of view–putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is important to better understand where someone is coming from, but it’s not what we typically think of as empathy.

“The second type of empathy is ‘Personal Distress.’ Personal distress is literally feeling another’s emotions. When you are watching a scary movie, and you start to empathize with the hero and feel afraid, that is personal distress in action. You are actually feeling the other’s emotion through a process called ‘emotional contagion.’ The actor, or another person, is actually ‘infecting’ you with their emotion. We all experience personal distress, but too much of it may not be a good thing. Some people are so prone to feeling other’s emotional states that they are battered about by the feelings and emotions of others.

“The third type of empathy is ‘Empathic Concern.’ This type is what we most often think about when we hear the term ‘empathy.’ It is the ability to recognize another’s emotional state, to feel in tune with that emotional state, and if it is a negative/distressful emotion, feel and show appropriate concern.”

Riggio also makes a salient point: “These 3 types of empathy represent different aspects of our personalities.” This is important because personality is the visible aspect of our character as seen by others. Through our personality people can “see” whether we possess empathy, or not.

That said the problem I have with even these definitions is that they still don’t really provide any insight into how we “see” empathy at work. That is, what are the “behaviors” that are associated with any of these three types of empathy? In other words how does empathy manifest itself into how people interact with others? Let me state that another way–what behaviors would be a dead giveaway that someone (the boss) really has NO empathy?

I think this is important as we all know sociopaths are good at faking many leadership traits. So it’s up to you to learn to see through their superficial behaviors to see the true person beneath the surface. That’s what we’re going to tackle here. What should you look for in a person’s behavior, toward you and those around you, that would confirm they have true empathy?

As I prove in my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw most managers display some, if not all, sociopathic tendencies. In fact you could easily make the case that it’s a prerequisite to moving up the corporate ladder. One of the prime traits of a sociopath is that they are narcissists and narcissists are clinically proven to lack empathy. For many they do a good job at feigning empathy but on the inside they rarely really care for anyone other than themselves. Faux empathy stems from a number of things including the need to fit in, socially–to appear like a feeling, caring person. For the sociopath empathy is an “acquired” social skill–they “acquire” it because they understand its importance in keeping the huddled masses doing their bidding. In other words it’s superficial as it’s just a means to getting what they want from people.

In the end empathy is really nothing more than a communication skill. Empathy can allow great leaders to sense the emotions of a person or an audience and tailor their communication to nurture mutual understanding, teamwork, inspiration, or whatever agenda they are pushing. Someone with a lack of empathy exhibits poor communication skills because they fail to understand the perspective of the audience.

Do you consider your boss to be empathic? If you answered yes, how are you sure? Since empathy can be readily faked, here are some easy to identify behavioral traits (poor communication skills) to look for in people who “lack” empathy:

  • They will chastise you if you make even the simplest of mistakes. Any further mistakes by you are judged to be more serious than earlier ones (whether they truly are or not) just by virtue of their chronological position. You are labeled a repeat offender. Nothing you say, or do, will change his/her opinion of you.
  • They will exhibit anger. In all people, sociopaths and normal, anger is associated with a suspension of empathy. Irritated people cannot empathize. Actually, “counter-empathy” develops when in a state of anger.
  • They play any of the typical games that can be found in the workplace; “divide and conquer,” “stump-the-dummy,” and “thrown under the bus,” to name a few.  On the surface they appear to be agreeable and supportive, but behind the scenes they will backstab, undercut, and sabotage even those they depend on for their success.
  • When you bring up a serious issue they “shoot the messenger.” They cannot take constructive criticism about themselves, their organization, or their leadership skills. This is important as it’s a mirror into how they will react when you bring a personal problem to their attention.
  • They minimalize every word that comes out of my mouth? They answer everything you say with “but,” or “however.”
  • They “appear” to be listening, thoughtful and concerned yet will start talking before you have finished? They have spent the whole time you were talking thinking about their response–not listening to what you have to say. They have dominating personalities that control conversations.
  • They will ask your opinion of what should be done–then do what they wanted in the first place–they never end up following your suggestions.
  • They constantly state that you can trust their words when their actions have consistently shown that not to be true. This is especially true of their ability to follow their own cherished values, e.g., work-life balance.
  • They make promises to you about things they will do for you when they have no intention of ever following through. They will then blame you for not doing your job or being successful, despite the fact they contributed to your inability to succeed.
  • They smile and agree with you to your face, but then disagree or even sabotage things behind your back. Will sometimes give positive praise and feedback to you directly, but then take actions to undercut you to coworkers and management.
  • They make statements like: “I was supportive of you, but this ‘other person’ wasn’t so there is nothing I can do.” This is usually heard during performance review time and is the pat answer when they are explaining why you have gotten such a miniscule raise.
  • They use sarcasm or humor so they can hide behind an “I was just kidding” attitude, when really they meant every word they said.
  • They exhibit an “us versus them” mentality–they are divisive.
  • They will give you time off to attend a funeral of a relative, or friend, and then be mad at you for not being at work when they needed you to fire-fight one of their made up crises.

So ask yourself that question again: “is my boss empathic?” Based on how many “yes” answers scored on the questions above you be the judge–don’t take their word for it.

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