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When Empathy I'snt Good

Empathy has been the most bandied about skill for leaders to have amid the pandemic, but it may not always be good, said Marshall Goldsmith, a globally renowned leadership coach.

“Empathy, I always thought, was a positive,” said Goldsmith. “Then I realized…it’s good and bad.”

Leaders should understand that there are four types of empathy. “Then figure out when is empathy useful and helpful, and when my empathy may be doing more harm than good,” said Goldsmith. He was speaking at SHRMI 20, the annual conference of SHRM.

Empathy means putting yourself in the other person’s position.

The first type is empathy of feeling. “I feel your feelings,” said Goldsmith.

That sounds positive, as it gives you more connection to the other person. But that also means that if the other person is depressed, you are depressed. You start carrying around that person’s depression, said Goldsmith.

“If we’re going to wait to be happy for everyone else in the world to be happy, we’ve got a long wait,” he said.

Another type of empathy is that of caring, also called sympathy.

“I don’t feel your pain, but I feel sorry for you because you have the pain,” said Goldsmith. This can be good, as it makes us compassionate. On the other hand, he said he works with the CEO of a children’s hospital, and found that the hospital staff has to let go of this type of empathy or they can’t do their jobs.

“Caring has caused a lot of burnout in the healthcare world right now,” said Goldsmith.

A third type is empathy of understanding.

“Psychopaths are very good at the empathy of understanding,” said Goldsmith. Propagandists, manipulators, and advertisers are very good at understanding, he said. “You see, could be good, could be bad,” he said.

Finally, there’s the empathy of doing.

“That is, I want to help you do what you do,” said Goldsmith. But what if the people you are trying to help don't care for it? Then you’re just wasting your time, he said.

What it Means to be Mindful, Authentic

In other advice for leaders in current times, Goldsmith said that one key trait relevant today is to be mindful. But be mindful about being mindful, he said. 

“One of the things I find today, if you go from Zoom call to Zoom call to Zoom call, its very hard not to carry one call over into the other,” said Goldsmith.

He gave the example of the CEO of a huge company who had a big victory and was all excited at the end of a Zoom call. He was working from home, where his wife and children were having a terrible day. The CEO was excited and positive, and talked about work, and totally annoyed everyone in his family. “Because he forgot where he was. He was still in the previous call,” said Goldsmith.

He shared a technique he learnt on mindfulness from Carol Kauffman, at the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, Massachusetts.

“Keep a question in front of you all the time that says: am I being the person that I want to be right now?” said Goldsmith.

Not be the person who was on the last Zoom call, he said. 

The same goes for being authentic.

“Sometimes we think being authentic means sharing how I feel based on the last call, or the last Zoom call the last day. Not necessarily,” said Goldsmith.

“Being authentic means being who you are now. Its being with the people you’re with now. Not those people you carried over from yesterday,” said Goldsmith.

“Its very easy in theory and …its incredibly difficult to practice,” he said.

Goldsmith advised leaders to focus on being present in the ongoing uncertain times.

“Today, you have to be realistic. You can’t just give motivational speeches,” he said. While some organizations are doing well, many are going thorugh a very tough time.

Leaders have to find a balance between pragmatism, honesty, transparency, and optimism. “It is what it is. You have to face the reality that exists and then say: ‘How are we going to make things better from here forward’,” he said.

At the same time, its important to let go of the past. Too often people get fixated on what when wrong and what they can not change.

“Focus on what you can change,” said Goldsmith. “Have a clear strategy and do your best. ”

One myth about leadership that Goldsmith wanted to bust is that a leader needs to be better than the people being led. He said today leaders are managing knowledge workers, who know more than we do. That’s a good thing; you want these people in your organization.

“Dont try to be smarter than everyone you manage,” he said.


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