Leadership Library Review: The Empathy Effect

December 2018

The Empathy Effect by Helen Riess, MD (Sounds True, 2018)

What are the big take-aways?

In this comprehensive, scientific and complex yet very accessible study of empathy, Riess discusses why this form of emotional connection is critical to human survival. Empathy is both innate and can be learned and cultivated, for which Riess offers the E.M.P.A.T.H.Y. model (Eye contact, Muscles of facial expression, Posture, Affect, Tone, Hearing the whole person, and Your response).  There is an entire chapter devoted to “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy,” which is the focus of this Leadership Library Review.

The leadership take-away (p. 148):

We often cite intelligence, instincts, and expertise when describing someone we consider to be a great leader, but great leaders are exquisitely attuned to others’ emotions and are experts at regulating their own.  CEOs and executives are often lauded for their fierce tenacity and decisive actions, politicians for their hard-line thinking, entrepreneurs for their innovative, competitive natures.  But these qualities are only part of the story of leadership.  Neurobiology seems to predispose us to a preference for leaders who above all else express empathy and compassion. [Emphasis mine.]

Why do I like it?

I like that Riess is so strong and persuasive in arguing the case for empathy as central to effective leadership.  In easily understandable terms, Riess explains how, neurologically, emotional judgment and group coordination – two keys to transformational leadership – actually works chemically and structurally.  She also explores the psychology of workplace empathy in the context of attachment theory (i.e., how workplace leadership and power dynamics may be profoundly affected by individuals’ childhood experiences of authority), and her own research debunking the widespread belief that nice leaders are perceived as less competent.

For me, the most fascinating piece of the chapter on “Leadership and the Politics of Empathy” is Riess’s incisive take on the 2016 presidential election.  She convincingly contends that while Trump utilized a form of faux empathy to reach out to voters from some socio-economic groups whom he has a known record of actually exploiting, Clinton (to some extent, following on Obama’s notorious aloofness) demonstrated a total lack of empathy by using devastating language – such as “a basket of deplorables” – to describe her opponent’s followers.

In what situations would this be useful?

If you’re generally interested in the topics of empathy, compassion and self-compassion, I highly recommend this book.  For leaders, I especially recommend this book if you know for yourself – or if you are receiving feedback – that you have difficulty relating emotionally to, communicating with, or motivating other people.  This book is full of tips and techniques for developing and showing empathy, and for connecting authentically in person and via digital communication. And for those of you who need it, it’s all backed up with the latest in neuroscientific research.

What other resources might “pair” well with it?

As regular readers of this blog know by now, my go-to resource on the topics of empathy, compassion, self-compassion, gratitude and other elements of wellness is the Greater Good Science Center out of UC Berkeley. The Center has a new set of initiatives designed to support workplace leaders.

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1 Response to Leadership Library Review: The Empathy Effect

  1. Pingback: Leadership Library Review: Seven Things I Am Learning from My Clients in the Pandemic | Susan Palmer Consulting, LLC

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