Leaders Letter Newsletter

Leaders Letter 59 – Beware the empathy trap!

Happy Monday leaders.

This week’s leaders letter comes from a friend of Focus and Positive Psychology coach Sharon Aneja. Sharon will be breaking down the empathy trap and why you should put on your own mask first.

Have a great week and over to Sharon’s gems:

Leaders: Beware the empathy trap!

By now you will have heard a million coaches telling leaders to be more empathetic, show more emotional intelligence and practice active listening.

You’re expecting me to say the same. I’m not here to do that.


Well, there’s an old adage: “Nice guys finish last”.

OK, I don’t totally subscribe to this loaded statement. Besides, Alan Sugar’s style of 80’s leadership has that pretty much covered.

What I am saying is that there is such a thing as being too empathetic a leader which can be detrimental to the team.

True story:

Jim cares for his team’s wellbeing and he wants to make sure they don’t have too much on. He listens to people, their worries, and he takes on extra work so that they don’t have to. He solves their problems. He’s a rescuer.

What’s wrong with this?

Well, Jim (real name protected) is an empath. So far so good. But he’s overusing this skill to relate to his people’s concerns and he’s overburdening himself with work and he’s teaching his team a learned helplessness.
Which means that they don’t learn how to solve problems for themselves and the power dynamic in the team has shifted to that of a parent and child. Jim has become the saviour. His team have become his disciples.

The outcome?

  • Demotivated teams
  • Lack of initiative and innovation
  • Overstressed leader

So how can Jim jump out of the empathy trap?

  • Boundaries and teamwork = we are in this together
  • Accountability and agency = I have control over what helps me be at my best
  • Leading with empathy = putting my own face mask on first

Here are some questions to help Jim’s team get there:

Boundaries and teamwork

  • What do we want the power dynamic to be in our team?
  • How do we hold ourselves accountable to it?
  • How can we each build on what works in our team?
  • Do we all understand what success looks like?
  • Accountability and agency
  • What is the team’s responsibility/leaders’ responsibility?
  • How can I use my strengths to be at my best?
  • What’s in my control to change?
  • What helps me do my best work?
  • Putting my own face mask on first
  • Shaking off our old limiting beliefs and emotions is key to growth
  • Am I this thought?
  • Am I this emotion?
  • Am I this behaviour?

The key to empathetic leadership lies in putting our mask on first and holding healthy boundaries so that we have the space to practice kindness and compassion that creates the right kind of impact in our team and in our organisation.


Sharon Aneja – Founder, Humanity Works Consultancy

“Experts in optimising leadership performance and creating a culture of learning for business success”

Connect With Sharon On LinkedInOn EmailOn Her Website

Brilliant Leaders Blogs To Read Now:

🔗 Bad Management: Cult of CCF, confusion, chaos, fear

🔗 How To Win Trust? Leadership Principles

🔗 Understanding Your Teams Reactions: Fight, Flight, Freeze

🔗 Fewer Managers, More Coaches & Mentors