Can You Be Too Empathetic? Monitoring Overuse of Empathy at Work

overuse of empathy
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Have you ever interacted with a team member who was experiencing a problem and felt an instant pull to assist? Maybe this showed up like an internal yank toward their perspective, or an immediate reaction towards accommodating their request without considering the implications.

I sometimes hear from leaders who approach Empathetic Leadership with a bit of trepidation because they wonder how to ensure they effectively calibrate their use of empathy. While I advocate use of empathy in leadership, it’s important to recognize when overuse propels you backwards and becomes an obstacle to moving forward.

Overusing Empathy Does Not Serve You or Others Well

When you overuse empathy, you put yourself at risk of being taken advantage of — or over-giving, which can lead to burnout.

What’s less obvious is that you can put your relationship with team members at risk. When you regularly respond with assistance, and later recognize it’s not serving you well and take action to make an adjustment, it can leave them confused about what changed. It may affect their future expectations about your working relationship.

Adam Waytz describes how failing to recognize the limits of empathy negatively affects performance. How do you know when you need to more closely monitor your use of empathy and what steps to take if course correction is needed?

Know Your Tendencies

A good way to start is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are my natural tendencies toward using empathy?
    • Do I naturally gravitate toward empathy?
    • Is empathy one of my strengths?
    • Does leading with empathy come easy for me?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, ask yourself this:

  • When I successfully use empathy to understand others is my immediate response often to offer assistance or accommodation?

If you answered “yes” to this question, it may be an indicator that you tend toward overuse of empathy. To uncover more, follow these steps to help you clarify if this is an area where some adjustments would benefit you and those you interact with at work.

Monitor Your Actions During Your Interactions

If you have an upcoming interaction where empathy will play a role, plan in advance to observe yourself while you are engaging. Notice how you use empathy and your corresponding response. Notice the following:

  • What is the nature of the situation?
    • Is it routine or urgent?
    • Small or large in scope?
  • What is being presented to you?
    • Facts and data?
    • Emotions and feelings?
  • What is your response pattern?
    • Are you responding immediately? If so, based on what?
    • What information are you using to inform your response? It is complete?

If you are unable to catch yourself in the moment during interactions that are unplanned, take a few minutes to reflect back and identify what took place, how you used empathy and your response.

Once you have more information about your actions, determine what adjustments you need to make.

Your Response Is a Choice

Once you have information about your tendencies and actions along with data that you gleaned by empathizing, adjust your response pattern. You have the right to choose how to respond.

Develop some options to have handy when you need to take a step back or create space to allow you to more effectively respond. Some examples might include:

  • Asking to think about a situation overnight
  • Creating three ways to say “no” that you can use across a variety of circumstances
  • Inviting more facts and data to balance emotional pulls

Greg McKeown proposed a matrix with an area  he calls the “sweet spot” for setting boundaries at work. He says protecting yourself from others and learning how to filter can set you up to successfully navigate relationships while keeping our own needs in sight. Monitoring your overuse of empathy and adjusting accordingly can help you achieve this balance.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you tend to overuse empathy at work? We want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.