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The Conflict between Inclusion & Empathy

Great leaders possess empathy.

In our work supporting organisations to develop a culture of inclusion, we spend a lot of time working with leaders who act as the main sponsor of their organisations ED&I agenda, and the topic of empathy and its role in inclusion comes up a lot.

For us, empathy is a key component of inclusion – understanding the different perspectives, challenges, and opportunities of all employees regardless of their personal characteristics, whilst recognising the collective value of building a diverse workforce.

However, often a leader’s empathy is confused with sensitivity or gentleness. For us, a great leader’s empathy is about understanding another’s perspective and recognising where that person might need some support. It is about giving an individual what they need, not necessarily what they want.

I am not suggesting great leaders can’t have sensitivity to how their empathy manifests itself in their support of an individual they lead, but perhaps it is not as important as the act of support itself?

According to Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones in their article Why Should Anyone be Led by You’ for the Harvard Business Review, this form of empathy, sometimes referred to as ‘tough empathy’ walks the line between genuine care for the individual, and the competent completion of a specific task.

I am interested in how can leaders demonstrate ‘tough empathy’ whilst at the same time remaining sensitive to their own inclusion efforts, and how they can differently impact those individuals in their organisation who are underrepresented and have been discriminated against?

Are you a leader who has actively demonstrated ‘tough empathy’ or have you been on the receiving end of some – what was that like, and what was its impact?