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Marshall Goldsmith on why too much empathy is bad

The renowned executive coach talks about the pitfalls of focusing too much on empathy, and takeaways from his latest book The Earned Life

Marshall Goldsmith's latest book takes inspiration from Buddhist principles.
Marshall Goldsmith's latest book takes inspiration from Buddhist principles. (Marshall Goldsmith)

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"We talk about empathy as nothing but good would come from it. But it’s important to talk about when empathy is not so useful,” says Marshall Goldsmith, an author and one of the world’s leading executive coaches. Empathy has often been called a workplace essential, especially for leaders. But Goldsmith, who recently released The Earned Life (co-authored by Mark Reiter), cautions that leaning too much towards empathy may harm leaders as well as the organisation.

Also Read: How to get ready to be a leader

While in India a few weeks ago for an event hosted by human resource services organisation Randstad India, Goldsmith spoke to Mint about where to draw line when it comes to empathy at the workplace, why achievement does not equal to happiness, and why delayed gratification may not necessarily bring satisfaction. Edited excerpts:

In the pandemic era, there’s far more conversation on the importance of empathy. Why is too much of it bad?

It’s good to be empathetic but you are not doing any of the employees a favour if the company goes broke or is bought over. And leadership is not a popularity contest; it’s a series of balancing act between many important stakeholders. In fact, focusing a lot on empathy can also lead to burnout among the leaders.

What’s interesting to note is that leaders today are nicer, thoughtful and inclusive than ever, and their feedback is worse than ever. Why? The expectations of employees are totally different today. The employees can afford to leave their jobs and don’t put up with bad attitude from bosses. Behaviours that were tolerated five or 10 years ago, in fact even celebrated 20 years ago, would get a leader fired today. So the leaders today are much more under watch.

So, what can a leader do?

It is what it is. One option is to whine about it and the other, to make the best of it. One thing I talk about in the book, and it talks about lot of things I learnt from the Bhagavat Gita... in life you have a choice, bad and worse. Pick the bad and make the best of it.

In the book you say that achieving something you wanted to achieve doesn’t always bring happiness. Why?

Achievement is good if it’s connected to a higher sense of purpose. Otherwise it’s a fool’s game for two reasons. You don’t have control of the results, and what happens after you achieve the results, you want more results.

You can achieve a lot and be happy or achieve a lot and be miserable. The satisfaction is minimal. So, never assume that achievement leads to happiness, gives meaning to life or helps in finding peace.

On the other hand, don’t assume that because you are happy, you are achieving a lot either. There is a ridiculous saying, ‘Do what you love and the money will follow’. Every waitress in Hollywood is trying to be an actor because that’s what they love, and they are all broke. So it’s a nice theory but it’s ridiculous.

The Earned Life book cover.
The Earned Life book cover. (Marshall Goldsmith)

You coach so many business leaders. What is that one common behavioural aspect you work on with them?

We are brought up in a society where we need to prove how smart and wonderful we are over and over again. Although it’s hard to stop, you (referring to leaders) have to stop doing that. Stop being right all the time or being the smartest person, let other people be the heroes. When you are at the bottom, it’s okay to try proving how smart you are. When you are at the top, you have to quit doing that. It’s not about you being a hero, rather letting others being one. That’s what leadership is all about.

Also Read: Why being generous is an essential trait of a great leader

Your book also talks about letting go. How important is it in the workplace?

Letting go is a key component to move forward. It doesn’t just apply to regrets or reminiscing about the glory days of the past, but also shedding notions that one closely held on to for years like delayed gratification. Most of the people I coach are have mastered it.

One of my favourite stories is that of Jack Welch, the former chairman and CEO of General Electric. At one point in his life, Welch underwent triple bypass surgery and thought he might die. When he recovered, a friend asked him what he learnt about life when he thought he was dying. “Why am I drinking a damn cheap wine?” Welch responded. Welch had an incredible wine collection, he was rich, and yet he drank cheap wine. He was waiting for the wine in his collection to appreciate in value. That’s insane. And he realised, what was he doing? ‘What am I waiting for when I almost died?’ Sometimes you need to be happy. If you keep delaying gratification your whole life, you know what you will get? Delay. You know what you will not get? Gratification.

Do you have any regrets?

I really don’t have much regrets. I pretty much make peace…I mean, I have made thousands of mistakes but if you ask me what I would change if I could go back in time, I would say nothing. If I get rid of the mistakes I would get rid of everything I learnt from those mistakes. So, I am happy with my life.

Any mistake that helped you grow immensely?

It would be fighting to make it to the high school football team. It was the best thing that happened to me. I was a terrible athlete and it diverted my focus on studies. Sure, I was disappointed at the time but in hindsight I was lucky. Another stupid mistake was getting seriously injured during a surfing trip when I was 27. Some of my friends egged me to ride a giant wave, which lead to me breaking my neck in two places. I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to walk again. That was a mistake. Good news is I didn’t die, I am not a quadriplegic. I was lucky.

Also Read: Why empathy, humility and creativity build better teams 

















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