In counseling and coaching folks from all walks of life, in personal and professional settings, I come across folks who have great empathy. They have that special attribute of literally ‘putting themselves in others’ shoes’ emotionally and use that awareness to change their approach to a situation. Conversely, I’ve also come across folks with terrible empathy who either cannot or do not care to know how others’ feel leaving behind them a trail littered with wounded people. The case for empathy as a positive leadership attribute is well documented and I have been a part of that school of thought too. There is, however, a case to be made, which I see just as frequently, that empathy can be a liability. When empathy enables abuse, then it is a liability.
I see spouses make the case as often as I see fellow executives do it to their peers. They condone abusive behavior by citing deflecting positive attributes (…but she is great at sales) or making excuses (…he had a terrible childhood). People who have empathy recognize abusive behavior when it occurs but quickly, and in many cases unknowingly, become enablers of the abusers by transferring their lack of courage to address the abuser to excuses, some of which sound very logical. The reality is, abuse is abuse, and abusers in fact rely heavily on their enablers to continue their abusive behavior. Without enablers, people who can stop abuse but do not, abusers flourish in autocratic styles, often very successful at their vocation.
As a leader, take inventory of who you are enabling. Who exhibits behavior counter to your core values? If you are honest, you can name many of these folks in your personal or professional life. As a person, ask yourself why you lack the courage to stop it? Again, be honest. Some of your reasons might be very valid. You need the job and cannot tell your boss to stop screaming at others, as an example. It may be a family member you cannot disengage with. Whatever the reason, consider whether you are truly helping the abused and the abuser by letting your wonderful gift of empathy become a liability.