The want of empathy and the harm done


I can’t believe I have come back to this theme so soon. Last week, Dr David Rock, one of the co-founders of the Neuroleadership Institute (NLI), spoke at a webinar on Regenerative Leadership and observed that among the top leaders of the many major corporations the NLI works with there is a huge concern about the lack of empathy among their managers.

Why does this matter? COVID has complicated and intensified the situation that has been simmering in the background. Staff leave teams and organisations through aspiration and discontent. Others quit, preferring the hazard of an early retirement to enduring psychologically unhealthy work environments. Discontent with managers is a constant theme.

A friend exemplified this situation over the past few years. He was working for a NSW agency and resigned because he found his line manager’s conduct finally intolerable and the agency refused to do anything, even after acknowledging his discontent was well-founded. He took a 40% pay cut to accept a job in an NGO. He’s now back in the sector at the same grade, and in a much better position.

He is a highly skilled, very well-educated worker. I was his team leader for a time, and he is one of the few people I would fight for to have on any team I might lead. He also doesn’t have a disability. His mobility and attractiveness as an employee aren’t impaired. 

Over the past month I have been hearing horror stories of how staff with disability effectively find themselves trapped in situations with line managers (and above) who lack empathy toward, and understanding of, their needs as a person with disability. They are not able to quit and finding an alternative position is not feasible. They must endure.

A quick word on the idea of regenerative leadership

NLI has a simple but powerful concept. Leadership can be exploitative, sustainable, or regenerative. Exploitative leadership depletes the energy in a workplace and the employees, sustainable leadership keeps the energy at the least viable level, and regenerative leadership improves the energy.

If you have an ideal of continuous improvement, you must think regenerative. However, if you think that, you must also think in terms of empathy, psychological safety, and inclusion – ideas that convey a sense of caring for staff and helping them be the best they can be in the roles they are in.

This enables for profit organisations and service organisations to make the most cost-effective use of their staffs. It should be a win-win situation. The staffs are well treated and are highly productive. That’s the theory at least. It’s a good theory, but the practice is much more complicated.

There is a wealth of research in favour of this approach. It isn’t a case of whether this is a good idea – that is beyond dispute. The problem to be tackled is how to make it happen. Here we run into the challenge of taking a deliberate strategic approach and helping those in key responsible roles to initiate changes in behaviour. And you can’t get anywhere if the people in those key roles lack empathy.

Ideas of power 

I noted in any earlier essay, Power damages our capacity for compassion and empathy, that researchers show that power effects our brains and can switch off any reflex to empathy. There’s a certain logic to this under certain circumstances. A general cannot worry about individual troops if his imperative is to win a battle. This is why troops die and are injured, even in victory. It’s part of warfare. Strong empathy would be catastrophic if the only option is combat.

But here’s the thing. Competitive power is not the only kind of power. There is collaborative power as well. A teacher in a classroom can take a competitive approach to learning by setting child against child so that only the ‘best’ shine and triumph in the contest for university places or well-paid jobs. Or they can take a collaborative approach to learning – one in which all pupils are supported to do their best.

I think we are in a transitional stage as we move from competitive to collaborative forms of power – with confusion about both. Our culture has been steeped in competition as the foundation for bringing forth merit – something epitomised by the ‘Darwinian’ notion of competition for survival. Contemporary research shows that collaboration is way more likely to be the stronger imperative in nature. That doesn’t mean that competition doesn’t have a place – just that it’s not the dominant form of interaction, It might be the most obvious and dramatic, however. So, it also appears to the dominant.

Collaborative power is different to competitive power. This what the research I cited in that earlier essay did not distinguish. That is because most expressions of power are framed in competitive terms. As a culture we have been schooled in thinking that competitive power is virtuous and necessary. Sometimes it’s the only form of power.

Collaborative power emphasises empathy. We see this in healthy families, in well-functioning teams and service organisations, and friendship networks. But we do not frame this idea of power of the parent, teacher, healer, service worker and so on in a deliberate way. We tend to think only in terms of responsibility and duty.

In both competitive and collaborative senses of power there is the idea of authority – which is a slightly different idea. This might be best thought of in terms of position versus merit. A person can be in a power role because they hold a formal position but lack the full array of personal attributes that give them authority based upon merit.

A person can have both positional power and authority in a competitive situation – such as a military commander or the captain of a sports team. Likewise, they can positional power and authority in a collaborative situation – such as the head of a family, an educator, a doctor and so on.

It is when we mix competitive and collaborative power that we get into trouble and cause confusion. If the method for selecting candidates for a power position in a collaborative setting is competitive the risk of ending up with a highly competitive person is high. 

Whether competition is the best means for the selecting the best person to hold a position of collaborative power is a topic worth exploring on its own. I want here only to highlight that we must clearly distinguish between competitive and collaborative power to avoid confusion.

If we want empathy, we must select for it

It is apparent, from recent stories I have been told, that people are winning power roles with no assessment of their capacity for empathy. This is having a devastating impact on staff who are vulnerable. It is no doubt adversely impacting other staff as well, but my informants are only staff with disability.

Over the past 12 months I have reviewed a lot of vacancy advertisements for the NSW public sector with a focus on what personal attributes from the Capability Framework are selected as focus capabilities. First, empathy is not listed as a capability. But there are capabilities that might obliquely point in that direction among the Personal Attributes – Display Courage and Resilience, Act with Integrity, Manage Self, Value Diversity and Inclusion.

However, this raises what I think is a major problem. Not only is it rare to see more than 2 Personal Attributes listed, but it is also unusual for these requirements to be specified beyond the mid-range of the 5 levels (Foundational, Intermediate, Adept, Advanced, Highly Advanced). The sector is placing a low level of expectation upon candidates at even quite senior levels (grade 9/10 and above).

Empathy is proving to be essential at the higher levels in organisations. If it is not being selected for, and the focus remains upon competitive power, this situation will prevail. It must be intentionally disrupted.


Empathy is hard to do. Some people are innately empathic to a high degree. But mostly we do not possess such a refined sense. Rather we operate in a fog between competition and collaboration. We must work at gaining clarity and giving ourselves permission to move toward collaboration as a primary mindset.

Human states of mind are usually expressed in binary and polar terms, rather than on a spectrum. Pure competition and collaboration may be thought of as poles between which there is a spectrum. Empathy is possible only toward the collaboration end of the spectrum. 

The goals of Diversity, Inclusion and Equity cannot be achieved without empathy. We cannot have psychologically safe workplaces without empathy. Staff with disability will not be able to realise their needs for safe inclusive workplaces without empathy.

My goal here has been to start a movement toward understanding that we need to lucidly think through why there is a lack of empathy, and what we can do to foster its expansion within the work culture. 

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