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Leaders Who Lack Empathy

October 10, 2016


This morning I was scrolling through Facebook and came across an article at titled The 8 Signs of a Bad Leader; originally posted on LinkedIn by Bernard Marr.


Being a leadership development guy, I'm always interested in other perspectives and meaningful information I can share and use. I'll be honest though, I didn't make it past # 1 as it has been a major point of discussion with my clients and to Bernard Marr's point, a major differentiation between great and bad leadership.


1. Lack of Empathy

Empathy is defined "as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." I know, I know; empathy is one of those "soft skills" that's all about emotions and feelings, and what great leaders have time for things like emotions and feelings? For crying out loud, there is money to be made, reports to be analyzed, and things to get done! (I'm being sarcastic, in case you didn't pick that up)


Seriously though; although I was being sarcastic there is some truth to it, and that's OK. Many leaders struggle with things like empathy and other more relational traits. The good news is, I'm going to share why and what can be done about it using SOCIAL STYLES.


SOCIAL STYLES is an empirically researched model that is proven to make a difference in performance. It was developed by Dr. David Merrill and Roger Reid at the TRACOM Corporation and is used in over 100 countries around the globe. In a nutshell, SOCIAL STYLES says an individual's observable behavior can be predominately placed in one of four categories: Driving Style, Expressive Style, Amiable Style, and Analytical Style. Each Style has it's own needs, ways of doing things, and opportunities for growth.  


In my experience many top leaders have a Driving Style. Leaders who have a Driving Style are all about results and they can be quick, assertive, and aggressive in their pursuit of achieving desired results. If they aren't intentional they can easily make others around them feel they don't listen or care about their thoughts and feelings. We are culture that values results and getting things done, and leaders with the Driving Style get things done.


I have also seen leaders with more of an Analytical Style at the top or close to the top in more of CFO or operations type positions. Leaders with an Analytical Style are all about making the best decision possible. The accomplish this by being unemotional, thoughtful, and logical. These are the leaders who will make sure all the T's are crossed and I's are dotted before any major decisions are made. 


Two real world examples:

  1. Earlier this year I was working with a leadership team on the East Coast where understanding empathy was one of the key objectives. During our discussion it became clear that a member of leadership, who has a Driving Style, really had no clue what empathy was . . . as if he had never thought about it before. He thought empathy was simply giving compliments, like telling someone he liked their shirt. When he said this everyone joked and said this explained a lot as he has had challenges in the past with other leaders and direct reports.

  2. The concept of self-esteem was the topic of conversation with a leadership team in the Midwest. We had 22 two leaders in the room and it was seriously one of the most meaningful and engaging conversations I've ever witnessed. It got even more interesting when an Analytical Style leader started asking questions. He was a little confused and truly did not understand the concept of self-esteem. He acknowledge that people need it, but he couldn't relate to the need, because in his mind he didn't need it. 

The truth is, some leaders and people in general just don't empathize very well. It's not because they are bad, mean, dislike people, or don't care. It's just not who they naturally are.

Earlier in this article I talked about the four SOCIAL STYLES; Driving Style, Expressive Style, Amiable Style, and Analytical Style. This breakdown should shine a little light on our leaders who get a bad rap because they don't empathize as well.


Some People Are Results & Data Driven
People with a Driving Style and Analytical Style are emotionally controlled; as in they are not very emotional, therefore not terribly relational. They get what they need from the world by getting things done and making the right decision.


Some People Are Relationship Driven
People who have an Expressive Style and Amiable Style are more emotional; therefore more relational. The needs of these Styles are very people oriented. The Expressive Style's need is personal approval. They desire atta boys, pats on the back, and recognition. When they don't feel approval they take it personally. The Amiable Style's need is personal security. They are motivated by everyone getting along and avoid conflict like the plague. People with an Amiable Style will often put the needs of others ahead of their own to please people and/or avoid confrontation.


Any psychologist will tell you that since we were little we have been developing strategies to meet our needs. Many of those strategies we developed years ago serve as the foundation for how we do things today, for better or worse. Throughout their careers, Driving Style and Analytical Style leaders have never had please people or be dependent on others to fulfill their needs, therefore they don't. Whereas the Expressive Style and Amiable Style leaders needs are all about wooing and pleasing others, therefore they do; and empathy is one strategy used to do so.


The moral of the story is that it is true, some leaders lack empathy. But, it's not because they don't care, it's just not natural. If you are a Driving Style or Analytical Style leader and you do care about your impact on others, you must understand that some people are relational and their engagement and motivation is 100% dependent on your ability to empathize, relate, and show you care. If you don't really understand empathy, it's time to learn more about it and putting it to use. If you understand it, it's time to use it.


It's easy for people with Driving Styles and Analytical Styles to rationalize poor performance by assuming people are lazy, unmotivated, don't listen, or don't care. Maybe they just need to know you care! Showing empathy is a great way to give them what they need AND get what you need.

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