Dear Leader, Are You Empathic OR Justifying Their Behavior?

Empathy has become one of those leadership buzz words, right next to vulnerability, trust, and compassion.All wonderful qualities, but what do they mean and what does it actually look like in the workplace? Weeks ago, I was listening to a client revisit her on-going frustrations with a co-worker. A few of her sentences began as follows: Maybe I don’t see her perspective…It makes sense she probably felt…I assume she was thinking…I could do more on my end…Maybe she was hoping…All of this sounded good as she tried to make sense of a complicated situation, but as we stepped back to evaluate her position and responsibilities, I asked her if she felt like she was engaging in empathy or justification? It caused for pause, as we dug into some specifics below.

Empathy often moves you closer to one another, as you seek to listen, and do your best to understand what was and is going on for the other person.It’s takes out the guessing, assuming, and reasoning of their behavior.

Here’s a few basic definitions that might bring greater clarity. Empathy = Understanding their difficult circumstances and challenges and mirroring them back to them. Justification = Rationalizing their bad behavior and making it your problem. Toxic Justification = Enduring and possibly enabling their bad treatment, as you listen to their same complaints, while not being seen or heard. You continue to extend yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially for someone who doesn't reciprocate.Often these terms come into play when negative patterns of behavior have been established. Accountability looks like addressing the behavior, sharing with them the impact it’s causing you and/or the team, and together looking at better ways to move forward.Of course, relational dynamics aren’t always as black and white and neat and tidy as the descriptions laid out, but hopefully a process forward.

Lastly, here’s a few symptoms to be aware of if you find yourself wondering if your empathy is in fact justifying behavior that’s not creating appropriate responsibility and change.

  1. You find yourself in a mental roller coaster wondering what you need to do or say differently to help the situation.
  1. Emotionally you are exhausted as you take on the weight of not only your responsibility but theirs as well.
  1. Specifically, your thoughts are filled with statements like…I guess..., they must be..., maybe this is happening..., I wonder if..., etc.
  1. You continue to take ownership of their tasks and roles because it’s what you’ve always done and are afraid of what will happen if you stop.
  1. Your work stress is overflowing to your personal life and causing more stress, possibly effecting your eating, sleeping, and overall health.

Both empathy and justification bring dramatic change into a workplace. Getting specific on what they each look like in your environment can make all the difference in fostering the kind of place where you and your co-workers want to work.

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