One of the most informative e-mail lists I belong to is the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center. The other day, I opened one of their e-mails and saw the image below.  I’ll admit a little surprise that the word empathy was featured so prominently.  After all, when I see images of firefighters, empathy is not the first word that comes to mind.


Empathy has been a bit of a buzzword recently in leadership circles, and I have been seeing and hearing it more and more from clients and at workshops.  But, I often wonder how seriously people take it.  Some of my most fundamental leadership experiences when I was a young adult centered on empathy and it’s importance in leadership, but I often get pushback from leaders when I encourage them to practice it in their roles.

Arguments Against Empathy

What I’ve often heard from leaders is that a supervisor’s job is production, not counseling.  Among direct quotes: “I shouldn’t have to worry about their experience or background.  They are here to do a job.  If they can’t do the job, I have to address it.” Or, “I’m not a counselor or a babysitter.  They need to get their needs met on their own time.” Or, “I understand where they are coming from, but if I accept every excuse as a good one, where will I be?” And finally, multiple versions of, “I’m not good at that touchy-feely stuff.”

Empathy Isn’t A Soft Skill

The problem with those arguments is that they assume that we are not always dealing with our employees’ experiences and emotions.  Every single interaction is impacted by each person’s background, their education and work experience, and their current emotional state among other things.  To ignore that reality is to ignore a very important part of human nature.  When you are able to empathize you will build better relationships and positively impact your team’s performance.  Empathy isn’t a soft skill, it is a basic job skill.

Empathy in Practice

The above quote was included in an e-mail that was explaining an incident in which a firefighter was injured fighting one of the current fires in California.  In this context, it is encouraging other firefighters to read about the incident, examine the lessons learned, and apply them in their own effort to stay safe fighting fires. Whether it is a fire incident, a co-worker messing up a client’s account, or an employee not meeting performance expectations, our tendency is to assume we would have done better.  We can easily find fault with their behavior, nitpick their choices and ignore the very real possibility that what happened to them could happen to us.  We understand the purpose of empathy, and maybe even its importance in theory, but in situations that matter, we have difficulty putting ourselves in others’ shoes.

Empathy Does Not Mean Lowering Standards

One misconception about displaying empathy in the workplace is that it means accepting excuses for subpar performance.  That is just not the case.  I would argue that being empathetic actually allows leaders to maintain higher standards.  I’ve found that when managers understand where people are coming from and deal with them respectfully, employees can meet any reasonable expectation.  Why?  Because they understand that they matter and they buy into what is asked of them.

Jerritt Johnston is the Owner of True North Consultants, which promotes organizational, individual and team growth through challenging, fun and relevant activities and processes.  Contact us today to see how we can help with your nonprofit board or staff development.  True North is an Authorized Partner for Everything DiSC®and The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.