Empathy and Leadership From the Organizational Perspective

Empathy and Leadership From the Organizational Perspective

Nira Shalev (The Open University, Israel)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2480-9.ch018


The purpose of the chapter is to review the developments in the field of leadership and the concept of empathy, and to examine possible interrelation between empathy and leadership. This chapter describes the complexity of the concept of empathy according to different authors, and refers to the psychological aspects in an attempt to connect this category with organizational behavior. Further, the chapter describes developments in the field of leadership in an attempt to focus on the contribution of the identified approaches to the relations between the leader and the employee. Finally, the chapter describes a perspective that combines chosen elements of empathy and leadership theories.
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Over the years, empathy has been identified primarily as the domain of members of the therapy professions: social workers, psychologists, and educational counselors. Kohut (1977) saw empathy as an instrument for the collection of data on the client’s internal world. From his perspective, empathy is borrowed introspection, or, in other words, the attempt of one person to live the internal life of another person, with a preservation of the attitude of an objective observer. It is difficult to find a sweeping definition of empathy agreed upon by all researchers. From this perspective, it is possible to agree upon a number of characteristics of empathy. For example, empathy addresses the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors of two sides. Empathy is a dynamic, multidimensional, and circular process. There are a number of layers in the process of empathy, comprised of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and this is not ‘all or nothing’; the person may be found in one layer and from the processes that he experienced, may move between the different layers (Kaniel, 2013).

The components of empathy have been studied by various researchers (Davis, 1983; Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990). The conditions under which empathy can develop have crystallized from this research, as well as the differentiations between the components that support empathy and the components that prevent it. In addition, the importance of empathy in improving interpersonal mediation has come to be understood (Goleman, 2008). Currently, it is possible to discern research studies that examine relations between empathy and organizational aspects (Holt & Marques, 2012). In recent decades, its components have been researched (Eisenberg, 2000; Shamay-Tsoory, Aharon-Peretz, & Perry, 2009) and attempts have been made to define empathy (Hoffman, 2000), describe its contribution in the organizational context (Davis, 1983), and identify its importance in the treatment process (Freud, 1918).

The field of leadership is continuously developing because of the considerable and still accumulating body of research on types of leadership, theories for the examination of leadership, the influence of leadership on organizational effectiveness, and the attempts to research the leadership factors perceived as having great influence on the behavior of followers (Burns, 1978; Bass & Avolio, 1994; Popper, 2007). In recent decades the phenomenon of leadership has become a broad platform for research. Many research studies are collected in handbooks of leadership around the world. In-depth research studies examine the components of leadership (Amit et al., 2011). It is enough to look at the quantity of books and research studies and the keyword ‘leadership’ in the websites of libraries to discover that there is an abundance of research material in this field. Leadership has been researched from both the psychological perspective (Yukl, 1989; Popper, 2007) and the organizational perspective, in an attempt to link leadership and organizational effectiveness (Burns, 1978; Bass & Avolio, 1994).

This chapter examines new directions in the concept of empathy and leadership theory. Relevant literature is synthesized to provide a holistic picture of current knowledge of the topic, highlighting meanings, principles, prerequisites, process and consequences. The purpose of this chapter is to bring concepts of leadership and empathy together. The author intended to expose the two concepts and try to relate them, establishing a conceptual bridge between leadership and empathy. The specific aim of the chapter is to review the different aspects of the concept of empathy, in an attempt to position them within the organizational context.

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