Leading from the Edge of Empathy

by Erin Thorp

For women in STEM, our first encounter with inequality happened early, when we entered our first post-secondary class and found ourselves in an amphitheatre dominated by men. This experience of being outnumbered continued upon graduation when we started our careers in science, technology, energy, construction or academics and continued to find ourselves in a male-dominated industry. Not surprisingly, through each of these life stages, we have found it difficult to be accepted or treated as equally by the majority and each other.

As we grow into our professional careers we can find ourselves in positions of leadership and face another very difficult barrier: ‘you’re too emotional to lead’.

But what does ‘you’re too emotional’ even mean?

If you identify as a woman or empath, it is our empathetic or people-focused responses to workplace situations that often present themselves as emotional reactions. Empathy is the ability to share in the emotions of others; of feelings with someone, not for them. Research tells us that as women, we are evolutionarily equipped to respond to situations empathetically. These emotionally-based empathetic responses are what lead many of us to receive the feedback that we are being ‘too emotional.’

We know that empathic leadership behaviors are one of the keys to creating the step-change that is required in the campaign for equality (how can you treat someone different from you as equal, without first empathizing with their point of view?). Now more than ever, as we look to build inclusive workplaces and increase the diversity of our workforces, we need more leaders (both male and female) who lead from their own edge of empathy. From this perspective, our ability to empathize, considered to be our greatest weakness by some, is really – fantastically – our leadership superpower.

Leading from the Edge of Empathy

Leveraging Emotional Intelligence - At the edge of empathy, we can understand our own emotions. We are curious about our own moods, triggers and feelings. We can give voice to our thoughts, our needs and experiences. We are able use the intelligence in our emotions to find the courage to voice our perspectives, step into our strengths and reach our highest potential.

Exploring Challenges - At the edge of empathy, we are able sit with another person and explore challenges before presenting or forcing a solution. We can see the whole person before us and honour their entire being, not just the numbers they present or the output of their work.

Making Connections - Leading from the edge of empathy is being willing to take the first step towards a connection. A connection to ourselves and to each other. Leading from the edge of empathy requires that we explore and leverage our differences.

How do we overcome emotional barriers in the workplace?

Those who have highly developed skills in empathy often feel the emotions of others as their own, which can be overwhelming and frustrating without the awareness or skill to appropriately respond. Therefore, to truly leverage empathy as a leadership superpower, it is important to build awareness during empathetic reactions and practice understanding the emotions of others, not taking them on as our own.

Step into the Future: Lead with Empathy

You can start today. Right now. Right where you are at. Just take the first step and trust in the process. Choose to embrace emotions - that is the first step. Sit in the messy discomfort of emotion. To be able to lead from the edge of empathy, we must engage in what we are feeling, curiously explore our emotions and find our voice. We are all part of the change required to bring equality to Canadian women. As we embrace our emotions and demonstrate empathic leadership behaviors, trust that others will follow your lead.

Empathy has the power to join us together, bridge diversity gaps and is the catalyst required to spark the creativity required to move us all toward the momentous achievement of true equality.

Let us all challenge each other to tear down old constructs and paradigms that no longer serve us all. We need all of us in the crusade for equality. Add your voice, telling your story.

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