Empathy and Employees: Why You Should Maintain a Healthy Distance


(Contribution fperformance managementrom Freelance Writer Jackie Edwards)

As managers of small-to-medium sized businesses, we may have plenty of experience in our chosen industries but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have experience in staff management. Indeed, managing a team of staff is not something we should expect to simply be able to do. It is something we must learn by investing in a management training course of some kind to help us find our way.

We may find staff management particularly difficult if we are unable to keep a healthy emotional distance from our employees and the issues they face in their private lives. If our empathetic nature begins to get in the way of asking employees to do what is simply laid out in their contract of work, our businesses will suffer as a result. As discussed in psychologist Paul Bloom’s new book, empathy can be a valuable aspect of intimate relationships, but it also grounds foolish judgements that often motivates indifference and cruelty.

So, as an employer, why is it so important that we maintain a healthy distance from our employees’ private lives? Why should we be understanding of their issues, but avoid becoming overly empathetic?

  1. The appearance of favouritism

As much as you want to offer emotional support to a member of staff, by doing so you place yourself at risk of being accused of favouritism. Other members of staff on your team may begin to feel undervalued, viewing the time and effort they invest in your business to ensure its success as insignificant. The entire team needs to see that while you’re an understanding boss, there are limits as to how far you can support them. All employees must accept that underperformance in the workplace, due to outside emotional difficulties, can only be tolerated within reason.

  1. Managerial decisions become more difficult

Managers sometimes need to make really tough decisions; ones that they don’t enjoy, but that make good business sense. These decisions include raises, layoffs, special assignments and disciplinaries. Jealousy can arise, sadness and anger can be experienced. It’s much harder to be objective and make these tough decisions if you have become emotionally involved with some members of staff.

  1. Expecting empathy to be returned

We’re all human. When we’re kind to people and go out of our way to make things easier for them, we expect loyalty in return. However, if as a boss you’ve decided to show additional kindness to an employee and have allowed them to reduce responsibilities and time commitments without a reduction in pay, for example, you cannot simply expect that your empathy will be returned in kind when you most need it. You might be tempted to want to ask too much of an employee because you feel that in some way they owe you. This is why we sign contracts that stipulate rights and responsibilities before the business relationship begins. When respected on both sides, they keep everything nice and clear.

  1. The risk of discrimination lawsuits

Even though discrimination lawsuits don’t happen to every manager in every firm, they do happen. Your business could face a discrimination lawsuit if there’s enough evidence to suggest that you don’t treat all employees equally. Discrimination lawsuits are expensive and highly damaging to any business. Too much empathy, even though you were just trying to be an understanding boss, can afford more trouble than it’s worth.

Naturally, there’s no reason for you to be an ogre. Employees deserve respect and understanding at difficult times, but they must also be reminded that you and your business and the other employees who work there deserve the same level of respect. Limits must be maintained for the good of everyone concerned.


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