The risk, that the wrong kind of empathy prevents leaders from giving effective feedback!

In recent months I had several coaching clients who presented similar issues around giving open and honest feedback to low performers in the team. And they all had one thing in common: their belief that giving honest feedback to their direct report would be very painful for that person and rather demotivate them, hence, achieving the opposite of what the original intention was.

All of them were highly empathetic and really concerned about the well-being of their people. The interesting aspect was that the empathy driving them connected with the other person in a way that Daniel Goleman describes as emotional empathy (in his book Social Intelligence). He describes this kind of empathy as not only relating to the other person but also feeling physically along with them and experiencing similar emotional states, thus, connecting with the disappointment and pain the other person may feel when receiving critical feedback.

Unfortunately, this kind of empathy locks people into a state of mental paralysis, disabling them to do anything about the situation. In their respective situations, my clients were exaggerating the possible suffering of the other person through their own imagination, hence, even with the best skills and the strongest intentions to help they felt unable to give feedback.

The subsequent work with all these clients had a similar sequence and outcome.

In the course of the conversations I confronted them with a different thought:  through not giving open and honest feedback they are depriving their low performer(s) of the opportunity to develop and get better. I added that they (my clients) would betray their own best intentions to develop their people. This opened up their thinking and enabled them to go one step further in their beliefs. It allowed them to develop a different kind of empathy, which Daniel Goleman describes as compassionate empathy or empathetic concern.

Is this just semantics, one may ask?

Actually: no! The Cambridge dictionary defines compassion as a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering of bad luck of others and wishing to help them. The latter part of the definition is what makes all the difference here!

The new belief that only open and honest feedback, delivered skilfully, will turn their intention of developing their people into reality helped my clients to become highly effective in delivering constructive feedback. It was amazing to hear back what happened after they put this insight into practice. One described it in the following words: “you would not believe how surprised I was when my low performer told me at the end of the feedback that he was appreciating the honest conversation which gave him clear areas to focus on to become better in the way he did his job.” Needless to say, this experience reinforced my client’s new approach.

Showing compassionate empathy or empathetic concern really is key in giving feedback effectively if developing people in an organisation is your intention!

If you like to discuss this subject further leave a comment below or get in touch with me direct.