There are many qualities that describe a typical CEO: someone who is willing to take risks, someone who is good at reading people, or someone with exceptional relationship-building and communication skills. But what about someone with empathy? How much does an empathic CEO help or hurt an organization going through a crisis?
According to the researchers (König, Graf-Vlachy, Bunday, & Little, 2020), empathy refers to sensing another in emotional distress and wanting to share in the experience of those feelings. An organizational crisis will definitely provide fodder for strong emotional reactions, so is it a good thing to have someone in charge who wants to share those reactions when steering the organization through the crisis?
SENSING THE WARNING SIGNS OF A CRISIS
The researchers proposed that empathic CEOs are better able to see potential warning signs that signify an impending crisis. This is in part because the more empathic that CEOs are, the greater their access will be to crisis-related information, and they will be less likely to be biased when processing this information. Unfortunately, this same propensity might also lead them to raise false alarms (i.e. see smoke where there isn’t fire). Therefore, the more empathic CEOs are, the better they are at seeing red flags, but if they become too empathic, they will see them when they aren’t really there.
EMPATHETIC LEADERS DURING A CRISIS
Empathic CEOs may also have the ability to make others care and show compassion in a crisis. It is important for organizational influencers to connect with others in this way. Yet, if a CEO shows too much empathy, this ability declines.
When it comes to accepting responsibility for the crisis, empathic CEOs will not defer any blame, but instead take ownership. When it comes to making decisions during the crisis, empathic CEOs will first be aided by their empathy, however too much empathy may lead to poor decision-making.
What about healing an organizational that has been hurt by a crisis? Empathic CEOs should be great at repairing relationships, but not so great at repairing operational systems. This is because of a tradeoff that occurs with empathy: when time and energy are put into repairing relationships, less time and energy are devoted to operational tasks.
So how empathic do we want our CEOs to be? It seems that researchers would say empathy is a good trait to have, but only to an extent. Unfortunately, there is not yet a framework in place to determine how much is too much. And while it might be advantageous to have an empathetic CEO, organizations should also make sure a second high-level decision maker is around to provide gut checks. This person can reduce false alarms, help make good decisions, and take charge of operational processes that need to be repaired in the aftermath of a crisis.
König, A., Graf-Vlachy, L., Bundy, J., & Little, L.M. (2020). A Blessing and a Curse: How CEOs’ Trait Empathy Affects their Management of Organizational Crises. Academy of Management Review, 45(1), 130-153.