Psychologists say empathy isn’t always a good thing in business.
• Being too empathetic could mean putting your team’s needs ahead of yours, and the needs of your business.
• Multiple anecdotes about powerful execs show how empathy can affect decisions.
If you’re planning to climb the corporate hierarchy, you may need to place a limit on how much you feel for others.
Experts say too much empathy can hurt your success in business, and examples abound of execs who made decisions that benefitted the company but may have hurt their employees or their friends.
As Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell has reported, Mark Zuckerberg “famously ousted his former friend, Eduardo Saverin, from Facebook after stealing his business idea from the Winklevoss twins.” Meanwhile, Steve Jobs had a “good” side and a “bad” side, according to his biographer Walter Isaacson, and once addressed everyone in a meeting with a series of expletives.
One acquaintance of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick even told Shontell that Uber wouldn’t have gotten to where it is today if Kalanick hadn’t been something of a jerk.
And according to Ashlee Vance’s 2015 book, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” when Musk’s assistant asked for a raise, Musk told her to take two weeks off, during which he would assume her duties and see if she was really critical to his success. When the assistant returned, Musk reportedly told her he didn’t need her anymore. Musk has since said that account isn’t accurate, and that his assistant got a year of severance pay and left for another job.
However, the running theme among those anecdotes is obvious: Business first.
As psychologists Robin Stern and Diane Divecha write in Psychology Today, overly empathetic people “may have a diminished ability to make decisions in their own best interest.”
Psychologists also say that being highly emotional — and demonstrating too much empathy — can distort your judgment at the office. As CNBC reports, that’s largely because you’re overly concerned with protecting your team.
One psychiatrist told CNBC that’s why psychopaths often get ahead at work: “Lacking empathy, more often than not, will help you in an environment where you have to make decisions that create negative consequences by necessity for other people.”
In fact, CEOs and business leaders are four times more likely to be psychopaths than the average person, reported Business Insider, and experts believe about 1% of the population shows psychopathic behaviour.
Still, you hardly need to be a psychopath to avoid getting bogged down by empathy in your business dealings.
Ultimately, the behaviour of many successful execs reflects an inclination toward self-preservation: They wouldn’t keep on people they no longer needed or reward unsatisfactory performance.
Stern and Divecha put it nicely in the Psychology Today article: “The art of empathy requires paying attention to another’s needs without sacrificing one’s own.”
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