This past week, in Scientific American, there was a great article that looked at doctors and empathy. As anyone knows who has gone to a doctor in a time of need, too often doctors do exhibit a lack of empathy. This is paradoxical because medical students are screened for empathy in the selection process, and doctors receive regular training on empathy throughout their career. What I love about the study, though are the questions the researchers asked.
The researchers asked whether doctors really are low on empathy or if there could be an adaptation on the job where empathy actually is detrimental. Having spent many years helping people during the worst day of their life (in the fire service) this really struck me because I realized that at times being able to shut my feelings off was actually helpful. In fact, this is exactly what the researchers concluded. When a doctor needs to inflict pain, or do something uncomfortable to help the patient, having too much empathy actually diminished their skill. On the other hand, when doctors need to consult with a patient, having more empathy really improves their performance. This means that the highest performing doctors are neither cold and callous nor empathetic. They actually have learned the skill of exhibiting empathy at the appropriate time.
When I read this, I immediately thought of so many of my executive leaders who constantly struggle to make tough (often painful) decisions because they are so empathetic. Their empathy has helped them develop deep relationships, and it has helped them lead with compassion, but it has also many times prevented them from taking difficult actions. In fact, for many leaders, they have been trained in authentic leadership and emotional intelligence and they pride themselves on what a caring boss they are. As a Mindset coach, and as a person who has had to perform in some very trying emotional situations, I look at this research and I wonder - maybe the one with the High Performance Mindset is actually the one who has developed empathy but who recognizes the appropriate times to turn it down. Ultimately, isn't this real emotional intelligence?
In fact, when I look at my best performing leaders, what I see is a mindset where they actually address tough situations with a surgeon's precision but they surround it with a caretaker's compassion. This is the art and skill of leadership and it requires consistent practice, thoughtful preparation, and a clear vision of the leader they want to become. As we dig deeper to develop this elusive High Performance Mindset, let me know what you think.
By Scott Peltin
Founder & Chief Performance Officer