Empathic leadership

Dr Peter Sear responds.

I agree with Dr Chris Timms (September issue) that although empathy may focus on suffering and reacting compassionately, this is not always the case. In my PhD research on empathic leadership in elite sport (completed this year at the University of Loughborough) head coaches explained that through empathising they share far more positive experiences than negative. Consequently, these leaders enjoy the numerous benefits of an empathic approach and do not see being more empathic as too emotionally draining or likely to lead to burnout. Sharing in positive events in the careers and lives of others has a positive impact on our own wellbeing.

Furthermore, head coaches claim to use empathy in a variety of other ways, which do not lead to a compassionate response. Throughout history, humans have profited from empathising, which not always but often leads to acting pro-socially. In-group empathy can improve relationships, encourage cohesion, and make teams or tribes stronger. We can use the knowledge gained through empathy however we choose, including to understand a rival or competing tribe (see psychoanalyst and ex-England cricket Captain, Mike Brearley OBE). Hunter gatherers of the Kalahari delegate one person to dress and act like the animal they hunt to inform their understanding of its perspective. This allows them to better predict where it will seek cover and how it will try to escape.

By empathising with opponents in sport, leaders can gain a more accurate understanding of their strengths, weaknesses and concerns, and then strategise accordingly. Gilin and colleagues state in a 2013 article in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin that ‘success in strategic social interactions often necessitates an understanding of the underlying motives, feelings, and likely behaviours of one’s opponent’. As Brearley points out, leadership is about knowing how your people tick and knowing how the opposition tick. 

Leaders in elite sport also use empathy to gain understanding of the perspectives of other stakeholders, like fans, officials, journalists, those above them in their organisations, and in governing bodies. This understanding obtained through empathy facilitates good relationships, which in turn encourages trust and alignment. There are lessons here for other industries. Indeed, empathic approaches in the workplace are growing in medicine, education, business and politics. Empathy is part of being human. It lies dormant in too many of us. However we use it, empathy has much to offer individuals, groups, organisations, and wider society.

Dr Peter Sear

The Empathic Minds Organisation

[email protected]

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