Is leading with empathy and compassion soft? Will you get taken advantage of?

A reader wrote with some questions common enough from other readers to share. His second message is the common one. The first sets the context of dealing with a difficult person. Here’s the first message:

I’d like to know how to deal with the type who is indifferent to the possible adverse repercussions for his actions (or lack thereof) and may actually want to deliberately trigger you to intervene and micromanage even if that’s the last thing you have time for and it defeats the purpose of having the individual take on a role in the first place.

In other words, you may assume that the person is on your team due to idle talk in their initial application and evaluation, but once they’re given the opportunity, it appears as if they’re more on a fishing expedition to invade privacy and look to sabotage you and prevent any progress or trigger a negative reaction.

I know that may sound absurd to anyone who is logical, reasonable and trusting, but I swear to you that it does exist and it’s almost impossible to detect from the outset. The type knows what to say to serve as a form of bait that you have reason to enlist him. The other type who is also looking to sabotage may be detected based on your gut, because something feels off. That’s very different than the person who tells you what you want to hear.

I hope that you understand the question.

I responded


Glad to hear from you. This gets covered in the fourth unit of my leadership course, which is on leading others.

I’ll say a few words about it here. If they help, great. If it needs more explanation, let me know.

I find the most important thing here is to look at things from their perspective until their behavior makes sense. In particular, instead of saying this person is micromanaging, triggering, etc, I presume that he believes he’s doing something constructive. I may not see him as constructive, but he doesn’t see himself as destructive either. We’ve all had times where we did something we thought would improve things that others saw us as messing up or trying to.

When I understand his motivations as he sees and feels them, then I have the tools to lead him. I can connect his actual motivations to the task (or figure out how to part ways if necessary). Trying to get him to do things for my reasons isn’t working.

The question to answer is what is he doing from his perspective? When you answer that question, you’ve empathized with him. My course walks people through the process of leading people empathetically like this. It takes practice to develop skills to handle difficult people, but the exercises I teach give you exercises that work.

Does that help?


His second message asked a common question based on a common misconception:

Excellent points, but isn’t there concern that if one comes across as empathetic, he will be perceived as “weak” and be potentially taken advantage of?

I wrote back:

I would have thought that way before. On the contrary, think of why people disrupt. It’s usually because they think they know better but don’t feel listened to or understood.

Empathy is not the same thing as touchy-feely or soft.

Making someone feel understood, which is another skill my course covers, tends to disarm them. Instead of acting up and disrupting, they find they can express themselves constructively. They have strong motivation, otherwise they wouldn’t act up. Effectively leadership channels that motivation to the team task.

This is what I teach in my course. It doesn’t look dramatic so you don’t see it on TV or movies. They want what’s dramatic because that sells movie tickets and commercials, so they imply undramatic isn’t as good.

It works. People you lead this way want you to lead them again. They want to be led through the emotions they care about. If they worked hard and went through an interview process to get into the company, they care about it and results. That means they want to be led. The question is if you have the social and emotional skills to have them share their motivations and then channel them. Schools teach intellectual skills, not social and emotional skills, so they don’t teach this stuff.

Does that help?

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