Empathy is a Double-Edged Sword

Posted by Ron Aspe, CEO on 2/10/2016
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empathy.jpgA recent Harvard Business Review article entitled The Limits of Empathy got me thinking about why many knowledge managers and information specialists are so great at their jobs – and how being empathetic can hamper their efforts.

Successful KM professionals are generally very empathetic people.

The author of the article, Adam Waytz, asserts that, “Understanding and responding to the needs, interests, and desires of other human beings involves some of the hardest work of all. … it takes arduous mental effort to get into another person’s mind—and then to respond with compassion rather than indifference.”

Doesn’t a really great knowledge management professional do just that? It takes a very talented and empathetic person to “get into the requester’s mind,” to understand the context, expand their thinking, and to care just as much about the result as they do. An information specialist like that is truly worth his/her weight in gold.

Too much empathy, however, can limit progress.

Empathy definitely enables people to be better responders to the needs of others in the workplace, but if you are overly empathetic in every interaction, it can often be a barrier to getting what you need in order to get the job done. For example, you may find that you cannot successfully implement a KM system because everybody is empathetic to each other’s reasons for not contributing.

I’ve discovered in my own professional life that I cannot take on everybody else’s reasons for not doing something. If I do, I have no resources left to move forward. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him... The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself... All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

In the above quote, let’s substitute “person” for “man” (it is 2015 after all) and “empathetic” for “reasonable” and you’ll see where I’m going with this! Another example of the downside of empathy is having agreed to wait for your overworked IT department to hack together a KM solution (because they are familiar with SharePoint and would love to build it for you) rather than insisting they support you with the powerful tools you need to quickly respond to organizational needs.

There’s an easy solution.

Per Mr. Waytz, empathy is “…touted as a critical leadership skill—one that helps you influence others in your organization, anticipate stakeholders’ concerns, respond to social media followers, and even run better meetings.” That’s all true …and nobody would advocate that managers (or those of us who support the professional efforts of others) completely disconnect from feelings. However, Mr. Waytz asserts: “the smarter way to empathize” includes collecting real information rather than speculating (or projecting) about what our team members, colleagues or clients need. And who better to collect, synthesize and act on real information than researchers and KM professionals?

Topics: Knowledge Management

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