Collaborative male leaders I’ve interviewed and have worked with are able to show emotional empathy. I say “able to” because some men consciously or subconsciously suppress those reactions, because “feeling the pain” or the joy of another person makes them vulnerable. This is the kind of empathy that is perhaps the most difficult to manage as you try to stay composed in a business setting. The joy isn’t a problem; it’s the pain you feel that can be tough to bear. The adrenaline boost of high fives and fist pumps over another’s achievement is wonderful. But telling someone you like that they are being let go, seeing the look on their face, and feeling the compassionate lump in your throat is awful. And it’s probably more difficult when you try to hide it. But it is the part of empathy that conveys that “you get it,” that you really do recognize what someone is feeling.
Some executive men have admitted that they are emotional, that they feel the emotions of others all too well. The difficulty is controlling their own reaction. Brené Brown, in her book Dare to Lead, makes the point that it’s important to maintain boundaries. She quips, “If struggle is being down a hole, empathy is not jumping into the hole with someone who is struggling and taking on their emotions or owning their struggle as yours to fix. If their issues become yours, now you have two people stuck in a hole.”
It’s critical for your effectiveness as a leader and for your well-being to successfully navigate that space between sharing another’s pain and internalizing it. I can relate to the struggle executive men have controlling their emotional reactions. As a psychologist and consultant, I constantly have to monitor my emotional reactions to my clients. Early in my career, a colleague said, “You are a sponge. You absorb all the bad feelings people have, and it drags you down. You’ve got to stop doing that to yourself.” To this day I think of him when I feel myself starting to go down into that hole Brené talks about, and I push myself back up.
One of the most in-depth conversations I had about emotional empathy was with Rafael, our CEO of a biological services organization. He thinks he differs from other male leaders he has worked with because he tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve. He said, “If I’m in a situation where somebody is going through something difficult, or we’re talking about a difficult topic, or we’re celebrating something, I tend to not guard myself from expressing those emotions. I feel them and I show them.” He reflected on other men in his role, saying, “I think some leaders do guard themselves because they feel like they need to be this pragmatic, all- knowing, non-vulnerable guy.”
Rafael thinks his ability to emotionally connect is an important part of being a leader, but he acknowledges that it doesn’t work for everybody. He said, “Expressing emotions and being comfortable when somebody else is expressing emotions is not an easy thing. Some of my colleagues and predecessors and people that I’ve interacted with have a hard time with that.”
Rafael took the concept of emotional empathy as a means of connection further. He talked about his empathy creating a work environment where people can openly be themselves, working with more fervor. In other words, empathy impacts the bottom line by allowing people to fully express themselves. “At the end of the day, you’re asking people to do extraordinary things for you. They’re going to feel emotions while they’re doing that, right? And if you deny them the opportunity to be able to express those emotions or see those emotions in you, then I don’t think we reach our full potential.”
Patrick, unlike Rafael, was perpetually in a position of being a new leader and establishing himself with a new team. He talked about his turnaround challenges where he had to firmly guide his team to up their game. In one situation, he knew people were not used to performing at a high level. Deadlines were more like guidelines to them. He knew people would be very uncomfortable as he pushed the accelerator. He said, “I had a forecast discussion with my team, and it was a tough love meeting around a few things. The hard part is, I leave there, and I feel bad because they’re all going to go home and kick the trashcan over.”
He shared that he went home after those meetings and felt like he wanted to kick over a trashcan too. He felt their frustration. He said, “I wanted to make sure they understood the empathy I had about their frustration, and that I do care about them and I believe they can do it.” The team’s performance improved dramatically, meeting the ambitious goals Patrick had set with them for the survival of their business unit. Patrick thought his emotional empathy for the people on that team was a factor in their success. His team caught on that he was feeling what they were feeling. Even though he was trying to stay positive and focus on his belief that they could do it, he had to meet his team “where they were” and take in how they were feeling too.