Why True Empathetic Leadership Is Empowering Mentorship

Empathy is an essential ingredient to good leadership, but not the entire solution.

Maintaining effective leadership is important to everyone, but being an effective leader can sometimes be confused with being friends with or well-liked by employees. There is growing concern about the problem of “cool parent” leadership that may be increasingly prevalent as more Millennials and Gen Z become leaders in the workforce. The younger generations prefer empathetic and other similar leadership styles, and experts and opinion leaders tout them. These are welcomed, rightly so, as a remedy for cold or abusive leadership that places business outputs over the well-being of employees. However, the ideas of empathetic leadership are often misapplied or used to justify being an overly nice pushover. 

“Cool parent” leaders value how much they’re liked over other important factors. Being a cool parent isn’t bad in itself, but prioritizing it can have negative consequences. Children may not be kept as safe, or reach as much of their potential, when parents do not enforce boundaries or help them to learn to do difficult things. A parent, teacher, or professor may be extremely well liked but may not have the most beneficial long-term effects on their children or students. 

When leaders want to be “cool” and “likable,” it can be difficult to say “no” when they need to, such as when a business decision must be made or is made for you by those with higher rank. There can even be resistance to letting go of employees when appropriate, or leaving a terminated employee feeling blindsided, because of a relationship that is too friendly to be practical. Maintaining agreement with others and the perception of coolness also interacts with the crisis of political polarization in the workplace. Maintaining one’s cool status may mean agreeing on politics, creating dividing lines and tensions at work around issues that should not impact work life or careers.

Much of an employee’s sense of being cared for and feeling psychologically safe should be coming from the organization and its culture.

At times, friendship and tight relationships within a work unit or team may feel like the only thing holding them together. It is important to acknowledge that this may be true on occasion. But the explanation for why this works also reveals the problem: friendship may retain employees in otherwise unsatisfactory conditions, such as poor pay and benefits, or a toxic company culture. Friendships and closeness can have real value, but should not be a replacement for fixable and more consequential problems with working conditions or company ethics. Yes, banding together may be a successful way to survive, but it’s a solution with too many problems of its own, among them masking larger issues. 

There are many risks of being overly empathetic or trying too hard to be “cool” as a leader, including:

  • Missed opportunities for career growth
  • Undermines authority, rules, deadlines
  • Unequal treatment due to biases, favoritism
  • Poor productivity and business outcomes
  • Suppressed disagreement and information sharing
  • Exhausts resources of the empathizer
  • Masks more serious or longer-term problems

So how do we lead with empathy, while also having the most positive impact on employees? The answer is contained in the phrase “lead with empathy.” First we have to effectively lead—for the company we represent as well as for the long-term career goals of our employees, with ethics and fairness for all involved. We should do this first because it is necessary and beneficial, but these things are to be done with empathy, which can make leaders both more effective and more likable. Empathy is an essential ingredient to good leadership, but not the entire solution. 

For example, communicating with empathy means avoiding things like defensiveness and judgment, but this does not mean avoiding difficult conversations or modifying the core content of communication to be “nice.” You can offer negative feedback and disagree with colleagues  empathetically. Being a friend is easy, and feels good, and on the surface seems effective for various outcomes like morale and retention. Skillful empathetic leadership bears fruit over longer time frames through mutual success and capacity building. Communicating empathetically increases performance because it gives people the sense that their boss is aware of their personal situation and experiences.

Cool parent leadership violates the very spirit of positive psychology, which emphasizes flourishing, empowering individuals toward personal growth, and trusting people to be responsible and successful when given the right setting in which to thrive. Leadership theories like empathetic leadership are grounded in positive psychology . In practice, empathetic leadership means carrying out your leadership responsibilities through actions such as relations-oriented behaviors—supporting, recognizing, developing, consulting, and delegating (empowering)—which lead to quality leader-employee relationships. None of these, when put into practice with the accompanying explanations from experts, will lead to any of the problematic behaviors of “cool parent” leadership. Will properly implemented empathetic leadership result in friendship? Not necessarily. But the behaviors are likely to lead to a “high level of trust, liking, and respect.” 

Effective empathetic leaders envision themselves as mentors, coaches, or guides. They take “nice” to mean not doing what everyone else wants, or being a pushover, but doing what is necessary to take care of the organization they lead and the people that make it up as well as they can, with their employees’ well-being in mind. We often rightly credit coaches, teachers, and bosses who challenged us rather than giving us an easy path, yet we are still likely to selfishly seek to be liked instead of doing what is best for the teams we lead. 

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We should think more broadly about the effects of being the cool parent or friend type of leader, to see who it hurts. Often overlooked completely are the negative effects related to diversity. If we are trying to gain popularity, rather than respect, we may succumb to biases in a number of ways. We may favor those that we like and do what pleases them and brings them to like us. Unfortunately our tendency is to favor those most similar to us, be it in race, gender, values (including beliefs and politics), or even shared affinity for something like sports or hobbies. When the culture of a workplace is to be friends rather than coworkers or teammates, those with differing views on work and non-work topics are less likely to share their thoughts and knowledge for fear of not being a part of the friend group. 

Good leadership should be based in behaviors that would be effective even with an employee with whom they cannot develop a friendship, someone who is essentially their political and social kryptonite. Meaningful and personalized feedback, for example, can help anyone and does require some empathy to know the person well enough for effective personalization. Communicating expectations, pros and cons, in a way that spares their feelings and keeps them motivated. None of these require being excessively nice or having a personal friendship. And, when led effectively, such an employee will probably like their leader well enough to maintain good levels of job satisfaction and intent to remain in the position, despite a lack of agreement and friendship between them. 

Limiting empathy can also protect your personal resources. Exercising empathy too often or too strongly at work can reduce one’s energy for being empathetic at home, or even erode ethics in surprising ways, such as our willingness to do unethical things more for others than for ourselves. Expecting a leader to fully empathize with many employees is not a reasonable expectation; they must instead empathize equally and in measured doses. Much of an employee’s sense of being cared for and feeling psychologically safe should be coming from the organization and its culture, so when leaders find themselves providing empathy too often it may be to make up for systemic failures. Employees should also know that empathy for their personal needs is not dependent on one leader. 

Empathy resources should be equally available to all employees and coworkers within a relevant unit or department, spent where and when needed, both consistently in communication and expectations, and with discretion as individuals face challenges that create the need for empathetic responses. “Cool parent” leaders often spend empathy resources on a select few individuals, and toward friendship, instead of business goals. Another important tool for spending empathy wisely is to balance empathy with healthy detachment, giving yourself permission to provide empathy at a psychological distance that protects you from having nothing left. Sometimes referred to as being an “active empathizer”, this means giving enough empathy to meet people’s needs, while protecting yourself from more than the necessary emotional burden. 

It’s important to take time to intentionally build and practice a leadership style. In the absence of a plan, the easy and feel-good approaches are likely to become a default. This guide, from Arizona State University leadership scholar Suzanne Peterson and her colleagues, can help build your style specifically to be balanced in terms of how nice (attractive) and authoritative (powerful) you want to be, and understand how this may relate to success as a leader. “Emulating the style of others or flexing your own in new ways does not make you inauthentic,” the researchers wrote. “It means you’re growing as a leader.” 

After all, somewhere between becoming a leader for the first time and becoming the best leader we can be, there is almost certainly a need for introspection, change, and growth. Looking back on a career as a leader, it is safe to assume that we will take greater joy recalling that we empowered people and enabled success than reminiscing about how “cool” our employees thought we were.

Brian Harward is a research scientist at Ethical Systems.