The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

December 4, 2016

The Downsides of Empathy

Although empathy could solve many of the world’s problems – including many issues that show up in the workplace – it has its limits and it has its downsides. Steve contends a lack of empathy characterized both sides of the recent presidential election. But empathy can also lead to burnout, indecisiveness, and a misdirected moral compass.

View Transcript

Voiceover:                              It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss. This is The Boss Show with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.

Steve Motenko:                   Hey, there, welcome to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m The Psychology Guy. I’m an executive coach in the Seattle area here and I do leadership workshops in a number of organizations with my friend across the table.

Jim Hessler:                            Friend?

Steve Motenko:                   Yes.

Jim Hessler:                            Nice, thank you. I appreciate that. Sometimes, I’m not sure but I generally, I feel like friends. I’m Jim Hessler, I’m The Business Guy.

Steve Motenko:                   I need to empathize more.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah, that would be helpful. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development and the co-author along with Steve of the book, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face. It’s good to be here with you today, friend.

Steve Motenko:                   Thank you. It’s good to be here with you too and as I say, I need to empathize more although the topic of today’s show is the downsides of empathy.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah, interesting.

Steve Motenko:                   I want to make very clear. I put bold 32-point font and exclamation points around this notion first. I believe that there’s no single human trait that’s more needed in the world today than empathy – despite the downsides we’re going to talk about later in the program. I have often said that if we were all truly able to understand the perspective of the other, to actually stand in that perspective – not necessarily to condone it or agree with it but to be able to stand in it – then pretty much all of the world’s problems from domestic violence to terrorism to environmental degradation would go away.

Jim Hessler:                            It’s an interesting postulate. I don’t know if that’s a word. Is that a word?

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah.

Jim Hessler:                            I’m not sure I 100% agree but let’s take this little journey on the show today …

Steve Motenko:                   Okay, great.

Jim Hessler:                            Let’s see where I land.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. It occurs to me that your potential disagreement could end up taking the entire show and if that’s it, so be it, because it will make for an interesting conversation. As I said …

Jim Hessler:                            Let me just say it. I think I have concerns about the limits of empathy. I don’t have any argument with it as an essential human trait. I agree with you that the world would be a better place.

Steve Motenko:                   Right.

Jim Hessler:                            It’s just where does it stop and where does, I call it, action or judgment or whatever kick in?

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah, it’s a great question. You and I have scrupulously avoided talking about the election. This is the show about the workplace and I’m going to talk briefly about the election in this context of empathy and we will bring it back to the workplace. I believe that there’s a deeply troubling lack of empathy behind both the Donald Trump bandwagon and the anti-Trump movement. In other words, if Trump supporters could truly step into the experience of so many segments of the population that have been offended by Trump’s pronouncements, his statements, his way of being and if the anti-Trump movement could also develop some empathy – if they could develop the ability to understand the fear and disgust rather than projecting judgments of racism which I think is true in some segments of Trump supporters and not in most. If they could truly understand the fear and the lack of satisfaction with the status quo, the lack of upward mobility that they perceive in the culture today, if all of us could understand each other, then, this election may have turned out differently and certainly all the antipathy going on from each side to the other would be softened.

Jim Hessler:                            Yes [end 00:04:07] … We’ll keep going on this because I think it’s one thing to empathize with a person’s position. It’s another to find it abhorrent and objectionable.

Steve Motenko:                   I think some of what we find abhorrent is a projection of our judgments on people who were accusing them of believing things that they don’t actually believe. At the same time, it’s critically important not to condone behavior that we don’t see as in the best interest of a healthy community, healthy country, healthy planet.

Jim Hessler:                            I am interested to see where you’re headed with this.

Steve Motenko:                   We’re talking today about the downsides of empathy starting with the idea that empathy is critically important for the health of your community and your world. Stay with us. You’re listening to The Boss Show.

Voiceover:                              It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. The Boss Show continues.

Steve Motenko:                   Welcome back to The Boss Show. I’m Steve Motenko. I’m The Psychology Guy.

Jim Hessler:                            I’m Jim Hessler. I’m The Business Guy. We have a listener online. We’d love to hear from you, (206) 973-7377. We also have a mailbox. and we’re on Twitter and we’re on Facebook.

Steve Motenko:                   You could send us a letter too … But don’t. Email is a lot easier – We’re talking about the downsides of empathy and we started with the critical importance of empathy which Jim is having a little bit of disagreement with. I want to just make it crystal clear that empathy, i.e. standing in the perspective of the other, being curious enough to look at how another person sees the world, does not necessarily mean that you agree with that worldview or you think it’s the best, the most effective, most satisfying worldview to create healthy communities and a healthy planet.

Jim Hessler:                            Again, hard to argue with that point. It seems like an enlightened perspective to be sure. I don’t know, I guess what I’ve been thinking about is winning and losing, let’s talk about the concept of winning and losing. Some cultures are going to win and some cultures are going to lose. Whether the winning culture is the superior culture or not, I guess, we can’t argue that point but it seems to me …

Steve Motenko:                   How do you define superior? What do you mean whether the winning culture is the superior culture?

Jim Hessler:                            It’s the one that deserved to win.

Steve Motenko:                   Okay.

Jim Hessler:                            The one that maybe gave the most opportunity and the best life for people in it. I guess where I’m hung up and I don’t want to take this show down a rat hole here, but where do we … As we empathize with people who disagree with us and this isn’t just about the election, it’s about life. Where does it stop being helpful to say, “Okay, I understand your point of view.” One of the things that drives me crazy is, “Well, it’s just your opinion. It’s just my opinion and we weigh them equally.”

Steve Motenko:                   That’s not at all what I’m suggesting.

Jim Hessler:                            Okay. Well then, you need to help me with that because one thing that I hear a lot, you and I talk about this thing called the Ladder of Inference and each person has a piece of the truth and that always comes across to me, as much as I believe in a lot of the fundamentals there, it comes across as moral relativism, the idea that just because you perceive that what you hold is the truth and what I perceive is what I perceived to be truth that we can’t make [judgments 00:07:52] about each other’s truth. The fact is one of those truth often is a better truth for humanity than the other one.

Steve Motenko:                   I completely agree with that, but to begin with, we can’t make grounded assessments of each of our truths unless we really understand each other’s truth. What too many of us are doing is … I’m going to talk about the anti-Trump movement. Too many of us are projecting onto Trump supporters motivations [crosstalk 00:08:26]

Jim Hessler:                            They’re all racist and they’re all [crosstalk 00:08:27]

Steve Motenko:                   Exactly. Motivations that are not part of their worldview. Now, they maybe subconscious parts of their worldview but they’re not conscious parts of their worldview. If we attribute to them conscious racism, conscious bigotry, conscious misogyny, we’re missing that grounded understanding of who they see themselves to be and how they see their place in the world that might allow us to get on the same page eventually with them. We have to know what we’re judging before we can talk about, “Okay, what worldview is in the best interest of the life-affirming values that most of us hopefully would want to expound?”

Jim Hessler:                            Yes. If we really listen to each other and we were truly open to seeking to understand rather than seeking to be understood, that would be a great start if I can just wrap up what you just said and maybe as a nutshell.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. I agree with the danger of the ladder of inference being that leading to it a sense of moral relativism. I believe that not all truths are equal and yet still, we have to drill down the ladder. We have to collect the information. I need to look at you and say, “How do you see the world? Tell me your story before I can make a grounded assessment of whether I think your story works for the world.”

Jim Hessler:                            It takes courage to do that.

Steve Motenko:                   It does. It’s a lot easier just to judge people. It’s a lot easier to stay in anger, in disgust, in despair instead of doing the hard work of really stepping into someone else’s moccasins. This is all about empathy. We’re going to talk more about the downsides of it when we come back. You’re listening to The Boss Show.

Voiceover:                              Now, back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show on KOMO News.

Jim Hessler:                            Welcome back. I’m Jim Hessler. I’m The Business Guy.

Steve Motenko:                   I’m Steve Motenko. I’m The Psychology Guy. We’re talking about the downsides of empathy. Jim and I had a really interesting discussion before the break. If you weren’t here with us, you might want to go to our website, Download the whole episode.

Empathy, I contend, is perhaps the single most critical human trait.

Jim Hessler:                            Can we just remind people, I think it’s important. Most people, I think, know this but empathy is the ability to understand how the other person is feeling. Sympathy is when you’re actually feeling what the other person is feeling. Mr. Psychology guy, is that a good description in difference?

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah, I think.

Jim Hessler:                            If we’re in empathy, we don’t have to share the other person’s feelings but we have to see them, understand them and have some sense of at least respect or consideration, I guess, for the other person’s feelings.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. One great thing about empathy is that study showed that it gives us power in a positive way. The empathic leader tends to gain deeper networks of relationships that allow him or her to do his or her work in the world in more effective ways. The highly empathic leader can negotiate better, can resolve conflict more easily.

Jim Hessler:                            Because even if they disagree with us, we feel at least to some degree personally validated by and respected at least or put into a position of power with rather than power over.

Steve Motenko:                   Exactly. In that respect is there’s almost nothing more important to most of us than respect. The guy who ran my professional coach training program used to say that all anyone really wants is to be seen. That’s exactly what empathy is about.

There are downsides to empathy. Jim pointed to some of them in the earlier two segments. One is that the more empathy you have, the less decisive you might be.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah, absolutely.

Steve Motenko:                   Because if you can see all perspectives, it makes it harder for you to say, “My perspective is the right one.”

Jim Hessler:                            You also don’t want anybody to lose. You want everybody to be happy. If you’re an empathic person, you’re going to be bothered more, I think, by another person’s pain or unhappiness. In a lot of your business decisions result in pain and unhappiness for other people.

Steve Motenko:                   Right, and that leads to another downside of empathy which is that the more empathic you are and the more you don’t want someone else to lose, the more you don’t want somebody else to feel bad, the more that can erode your moral compass because you might choose somebody else …

Jim Hessler:                            Get along, yeah.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah, over being advocating for a higher value or a higher purpose.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah, that’s a really good point and I think that actually pulls us back to the election topic a little bit too. It’s just this strong sense of tribalism that most of us still feel about wanting to be part of a group that validates us.

Steve Motenko:                   Right. If I’m a boss and my empathy for a co-worker who’s screwing up keep me from firing or disciplining her even though that avoidance might result in more harm to the team, to the customer or whatever and that harm might be not as obvious and not as immediate but still it’s more harm. Then, I’m in trouble from an ethical perspective and my empathy is getting in a way of that.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah. My experience is there are more managers out there who are too soft than there are managers that are too hard. That’s my personal opinion.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. I know, you’ve talked about that. We did a show recently on the toughness required of being an effective manager and that’s part of having that moral compass sometimes over and above empathy for an individual.

More on the downsides of empathy including how empathy can be overwhelming when we come back. It’s The Boss Show.

Voiceover:                              KOMO News, The Boss Show is back on a northwest lifestyle weekend. Here’s Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.

Jim Hessler:                            I’m Jim Hessler and I’m The Business Guy.

Steve Motenko:                   I’m Steve Motenko, I’m The Psychology Guy. We’re talking today about the downsides of empathy and by the way, if you like what you’re hearing or maybe it just makes you angry you want to hear more of it anyway, you can subscribe to our podcast at our website You can also get it on Stitcher and iTunes and SoundCloud, those popular podcast platforms.

Jim Hessler:                            We should sell dartboards with pictures of ourselves.

Steve Motenko:                   How about just a picture of you. You’re going to be the bulls eye, I’ll be the one wedge.

Jim Hessler:                            A big you-know-what-eating-grin on my face.

Steve Motenko:                   I kind of like that and I may go buy one myself. We’re talking today about the downsides of empathy despite the fact that I contend it’s the single most important human trait. I want to pick up on something we said before the break about how empathy can make you less decisive for obvious reasons. There are two things I wanted to pick up on. One is that if you’re asking the question, “Okay. Well then, what do I do about that?” I think the answer is twofold.

First of all, as a leader, again, whether you lead people, projects or just want to have influence, you have to be decisive. You have to move forward, courses of action based on your core values, based on what you think is in the best interest of everything, your environment, your community, your team, your workplace, your product, whatever. Even despite the empathy you feel for the people who may not be the benefits of your decisions.

Jim Hessler:                            Yes.

Steve Motenko:                   Anything you want to add to that?

Jim Hessler:                            Not really, no. That’s well said.

Steve Motenko:                   The second thing is that actually empathy, making people less decisive can be great. It can be a real positive thing for the bad leader because if you are making decisions that don’t consider the realities of the people around you because you’re not too into them because you’re not empathic, then you’re making ungrounded decisions based on ungrounded confidence and that’s a bad leader.

Jim Hessler:                            The word balance is so important from a leadership perspective and this is another example where we have to bring a certain amount of empathy to our decision-making and there’s a real specific tipping point at which it becomes works against the process instead of works with the process. I guess, just a lot of experience, a lot of emotional intelligence. Sometimes it’s required to know when you’ve been empathetic enough and when you just need to move on and not worry that there might be some damage behind you because of what you’ve done.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. Again, it all comes down to prioritizing your core values, being aware of your core values and prioritizing them so that your empathy doesn’t get in the way of acting in the best interest of what you truly believe and stand for.

One argument against empathy that I disagree with is that it’s zero sum. I think sometimes you can feel that when you’re empathic with another person like the more empathy you spend on your co-worker, the less you have available for your spouse when you go home. I’ve heard that argument, I don’t agree with it. What do you think?

Jim Hessler:                            Well, there’s a term compassion fatigue which I see in your notes. I don’t think it’s necessarily zero sum. I think feeling empathy for other people can actually be empowering and energizing rather than the other way around. It doesn’t have to be something that drains you. On the other hand, I think it can, especially if you’re in a difficult situation. There’s people getting turned … There’s people getting laid off. There’s people who are sick or whatever, yeah, I think maybe you need a break when you get home. I don’t know.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah, I agree with that and I think it’s about creating appropriate boundaries. It’s about self-care. It’s about not giving so much of yourself against your own intuitive needs for taking care of yourself.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah, as you know that’s difficult for me.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah, I do know that and it’s difficult for a lot of people. I don’t think that empathy is inherently exhausting or overwhelming. It can be for some people. It can be maybe for all people in some situations but it’s about creating boundaries. That’s what I would …

Jim Hessler:                            Well, I think the point is you can actually be in a more helpful mode of service to another person if you’re not burdened by too much empathy. I think you can actually serve others better if you’re not carrying that weight around. Maybe this is where sympathy comes in versus empathy.

Steve Motenko:                   More on the downsides of empathy when we come back, it’s The Boss Show.

Voiceover:                              It’s a northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. The Boss Show continues.

Jim Hessler:                            I’m Jim Hessler, I’m The Business Guy.

Steve Motenko:                   I’m Steve Motenko, I’m The Psychology Guy. We’re talking on The Boss Show today about the downsides or the limits of empathy which I contend is the single most important human trait. We mentioned a couple of segments ago, that seconds ago, it was a little longer than that.

Jim Hessler:                            Yeah, a little bit.

Steve Motenko:                   A couple segments ago that people who are truly empathic can generally enhance their power and we don’t mean power over, we mean power to or power with as Jim said earlier in the show. That’s a great thing because again as we’ve said, you attract people to you who can help you get your positive agenda enacted if you are empathic. If people feel respected, they come to you in droves. The problem is and this is a subtle thing, the more power that empathy gets you, the less likely you are to continue to display empathy because simply power corrupts.

Jim Hessler:                            Okay. That’s an absolute statement.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah, it probably shouldn’t be because there are some people who continue to maintain their level of empathy after they gain power but quite often, it happens that once you get to a position of status, prestige, power. Look at spiritual teachers, there’s classic case of so many spiritual teachers who are so “highly evolved” that they begin to get followers who think, “Oh, this person has the way.” So often, it happens that they abuse the power. Obviously, I mean, the cases are legendary.

Jim Hessler:                            It chips away your empathy.

Steve Motenko:                   It can chip away. The very fact of having power can chip away your empathy. Look at the classic case of Stanford prison guard experiment from the 1970’s where people were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards as a sociological experiment and the ones who are randomly assigned as guards ended up abusing and humiliating the people who are role-playing prisoners really just because they had the power to do so. There were something in the culture of the prison guard who know it’s a role play that had them abuse their power and lose empathy further.

Jim Hessler:                            I’m not sure that that experiment teaches us everything that some people think it teaches us but it’s certainly a dismal view of humanity to say that we can’t count on people to become powerful and maintain their empathy for others. That’s a dark view.

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. I think it’s true in not all situations but I think it’s something that all of us have to be careful of. I actually feel it myself, Jim. I don’t know how you feel but if I’m in front of a workshop room, if I’m coaching an executive, they tend to attribute to me power based on the quality of my insights or whatever that I find that I have to be careful of, that I find that because that status differential can lead me to teach more than coach, to tell more than relate to, because of what they’re attributing to my way of being or my intelligence.

Jim Hessler:                            Which slides us over into a really discussion probably for another show about power because power is not being a bad thing. Power being a good thing if it’s not used for the wrong reasons, right?

Steve Motenko:                   Yeah. I used the terms earlier that came from, I think, in my experience, author Riane Eisler, power to or power with as opposed to power over. It would be a great subject for our show. When we come back, how to mitigate the downsides of empathy, stay with us, you’re listening to The Boss Show.

Voiceover:                              Now back to Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko. This is The Boss Show on KOMO News.

Jim Hessler:                            Welcome back. I am Jim Hessler and I’m The Business Guy.

Steve Motenko:                   I’m Steve Motenko, I’m The Psychology Guy. The show today is about the downsides of empathy and we just want to recap briefly how to mitigate those downsides, how to keep them from impacting you in negative ways. First of all, if empathy overwhelms you, if it tires you, make sure you pay attention to your self-care. Make sure you create appropriate boundaries.

Secondly, if you tend toward ethical lapses to being too empathic to stand for your values, clarify your values and pay attention to them. What are your deepest held core values? Act from them. Also, have a truth teller by your side, somebody who tell you when they see you engage in ethical lapses. Finally, be careful with your power because power does corrupt and can make you less empathic.

Jim Hessler:                            It’s not the leader’s job to make everybody happy or to free everybody from pain. The Boss Show is produced by Boss Media Productions and our sound engineer is Kevin Dodrill.

Steve Motenko:                   If you miss any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at or you can also go to subscribe to our podcast, download our previous episodes or contact us maybe to bring us into your workplace.

Jim Hessler:                            Thank you for listening.

Steve Motenko:                   Don’t forget …

Jim and Steve:                      Rule #6.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *