Empathy versus results

This question was raised to us recently: How do you balance empathy with results? This suggests that empathy exists on its own aside from who we are and what we do. The reality is that empathy is part of our Emotional Intelligence and not just a tool that we switch on when we want to show people that we understand them and how they feel. It is a skill that we develop when we are genuinely concerned about connecting with others. Those others can be family, friends, colleagues, and the community in general.

What is empathy?

The ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation.‘ — Dictionary.cambridge.org

If we are empathic then in our interactions with others, we are conscious of who they are, what they may be sensing or feeling about the interaction and how we can assist or support them most appropriately.

We often think about showing empathy for people when they have been through a sad or traumatic experience, and we want to be compassionate and supportive. We use kind words and softer language that reflect a depth of sensitivity and gentleness.

In the world of work there are many interactions that leaders and managers need to have with their staff members. These can be around workplace behaviour and issues where they are often spontaneous and not a lot of thought goes into how we conduct ourselves because we know each other and often have the ‘unwritten’ rules of behaviour that we are all familiar with.

Then there are the more formal interactions where there is the need for individual and team goal setting where the emphasis is on performance and expectations. These events are often dreaded by staff members and managers alike. It is often seen by the staff as the time when all the issues or mistakes that have happened over the last six months or the year are dragged out and rehashed.

By the manager, it can be seen as the time when they have to give a performance rating and argue with the staff member who wants a higher rating, particularly when attached to salary reviews. This can lead to entrenched positions that can be more confrontational than collaborative.

The worst thing that can happen is that these performance related discussions are hurried or avoided. If you are not prepared to be a manager who can take on this conversation with empathy, then you should consider if you are fit to be a manager. Taking the position brings with it the requirement to lead and manage your team through good times and bad, to share good news and bad.

With results and performance feedback, empathy is understanding where the individual (or team) stands in relation to the agreed objectives. Doing an honest appraisal means taking time to list the areas of achievement so they can be recognised.

Then looking at the shortfall in results, if any, and considering the individual and what you know about them, how do you present them with the information in a way that they can hear it and accept it. You consider how they may be entering the session if it is formal, or how you will set up the session if you want to give spontaneous feedback around an issue or challenge that has recently arisen.


A performance review is like going to the headmaster’s office – no matter how old you are! Empathy is understanding that and setting the scene beforehand. Giving the individual an opportunity to prepare for the meeting so that they are not blindsided, which will almost always bring a negative and defensive reaction that does not lead to a good outcome!

Most people know whether they have performed well or not. Empathy is taking that into account and working on the facts which are key and doing it with empathy and an understanding of how the individual will feel.

At the end of a review how you made the individual feel about the discussion will be a predictor of how they will go forward with enthusiasm, commitment, or resentment. If you would like us to assist you in training your leaders/ managers on how to conduct performance reviews, please contact us: info@chameleonskills.com or visit our website www.chameleonskills.com

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