Differentiating Between Sympathy and Empathy: Building Healthy Boundaries to Empower Teams

Posted on : 23 Aug, 09:00 PM

Integrant tripled between 2019-2022. We grew from less than 100 engineers to nearly 300. We work for some of the biggest companies in the world, side-by-side with the most talented engineering self-driven teams, under the guidance and scrutiny of executive leadership. I’m not saying this to toot our horn – I’m painting a picture to explain why I had, continue to have, unhealthy boundaries. It was and continues to be high pace, thrilling, and at the same time high-pressure and stressful.

 


My Path to Defining the Difference Between Sympathy vs. Empathy

I joined Chief, a network of women executive leaders, in 2022. My friend, Ritika, recommended it to me. I was familiar with Vistage and wasn’t sure what to expect but decided to give it a shot. I had no idea it would change the core of who I am as a leader. In our first session, our coach, Val Ries, asked what kind of topics we would be interested in covering. While boundary setting did surface, less than two thirds of the group said it would be a topic of interest. Most of the women in my group were comfortable with the boundaries they set for themselves as leaders, mentors, and mothers.  


I, on the other hand, thought to myself, “I don’t even know what my boundaries are.”  


I spent years working 80+ hour weeks, working through the few vacations I planned, following up on every issue, pushing my opinions on every department head. I convinced myself every problem in the entire company looped back to a sales and account management issue. Delivery issue? Directly a customer problem. Recruiting delays? Impacts the customer. IT and infrastructure hiccups? Destroys customer experience. Increased attrition? Leads to lower customer satisfaction. 

 

I made every Integrant problem my problem.

 

Our CEO led an exercise for our leadership team. We scored one another openly on 10 leadership attributes. My lowest score was for delegation. It was an open, public scoring system. I am second to the CEO and, therefore, wondered whether everyone was bold enough to score me accurately. I realized my scores were likely lower than folks were comfortable sharing. 


I trusted very few people to competently tackle issues. Everyone was allowed to delegate their biggest challenges, upwards, to me. In addition to this weight, I wasn’t practicing self-care or sleeping well. My team had not been receiving the best version of me. 


In our monthly Chief session, we talked about the differences between sympathy and empathy. It was eye-opening.

 

Sympathy's Role in Empowering Effective Leadership in Self-Driven Teams

When we skillfully navigate the balance of sympathetic leadership while cultivating healthy boundaries at work, we empower individuals and teams. When we continuously practice empathy, we stifle our people. Empathy has a place, but when overused, we create the opposite of self-driven teams. We think we are helping our people, but we are stunting their growth.

Sympathy looks like: 

1. Active listening and asking questions 

2. Encouraging a brainstorm and creating space for their ideas 

3. Supporting their decisions – whether the result is good or bad 

4. Creating a safe space to make mistakes, learn, and grow 

5. Autonomous, independent, confident teams 

Sympathetic leadership, empowering others, trusting your team isn’t just healthy for the organization, it’s also self-care and a positive cycle of trying, failing, learning, succeeding, and growing for both you and your team. Through this journey, I’ve learned some people are more comfortable with empathetic leadership styles because they are afraid to take a step, worried it's the wrong step, and reluctant to make mistakes or take risks. It's important to create an environment where mistakes are encouraged. Within this safe space, coupled with sympathetic leadership, people feel safe to learn and grow. 


Today, I’m learning healthy boundaries at work, investing time with people who seek advice, ideas, solutions, and support. I enjoy working with people who crave space to learn and grow. I’m doing my best to be a good role model for current and future leaders, setting and showing folks what appropriate boundaries look like. 

 

I remind myself and those closest to me: 

1. Other people’s problems are not our responsibility. It is not our job to fix people. 

2. It is okay to say no. 

3. It is okay if people are disappointed or angry. 

4. We don’t have to anticipate the needs of others. 

5. We don’t have to respond to everyone immediately. 

6. We are not responsible for anyone’s happiness – just our own. 

7. We have a right to our feelings.  


Towards Achieving Healthy Boundaries at Work: My Personal Journey

I’m only at the beginning of this journey and still learning a lot every day. Here are the initial steps I took: 

1. List the people in your inner circle and determine whether they are energizing or depleting your energy.  

2. Invest most of your time with people who are solution oriented and seeking autonomy. 

3. Have a heart-to-heart (or two or three) with people who expect you to solve their problems.  

4. Limit time with people who don’t understand nor seek to improve. 

5. Check in to assess: Where did I spend my time? How do I feel? Are my relationships improving? Are we accomplishing more? How do the people around me feel? 

I used the above exercise for both professional and personal relationships. Some days I make a lot of progress and other days (and in some relationships) I find myself regressing. It’s good to remember to be kind to yourself, improving requires practice, and change happens over time.  

 

Promoting Healthy Boundaries at Work Through Sympathetic Leadership

When we practice sympathetic leadership, we innately start to give them trust not only to succeed but also to make mistakes freely and learn throughout the journey which is most essential for their growth and development. It takes practice and it’s a long road so being aligned with your self-driven teams and making sure you’re all on the same page is also very important. 


In another blog, I talk about using a nudge word to remember your good intentions for the year.  My word is happy* with an asterisk--healthy boundaries and sympathy and empowering others over empathy. Stay tuned! 

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Differentiating Between Sympathy and Empathy: Building Healthy Boundaries to Empower Teams

Posted on : 23 Aug, 09:00 PM

Integrant tripled between 2019-2022. We grew from less than 100 engineers to nearly 300. We work for some of the biggest companies in the world, side-by-side with the most talented engineering self-driven teams, under the guidance and scrutiny of executive leadership. I’m not saying this to toot our horn – I’m painting a picture to explain why I had, continue to have, unhealthy boundaries. It was and continues to be high pace, thrilling, and at the same time high-pressure and stressful.

 


My Path to Defining the Difference Between Sympathy vs. Empathy

I joined Chief, a network of women executive leaders, in 2022. My friend, Ritika, recommended it to me. I was familiar with Vistage and wasn’t sure what to expect but decided to give it a shot. I had no idea it would change the core of who I am as a leader. In our first session, our coach, Val Ries, asked what kind of topics we would be interested in covering. While boundary setting did surface, less than two thirds of the group said it would be a topic of interest. Most of the women in my group were comfortable with the boundaries they set for themselves as leaders, mentors, and mothers.  


I, on the other hand, thought to myself, “I don’t even know what my boundaries are.”  


I spent years working 80+ hour weeks, working through the few vacations I planned, following up on every issue, pushing my opinions on every department head. I convinced myself every problem in the entire company looped back to a sales and account management issue. Delivery issue? Directly a customer problem. Recruiting delays? Impacts the customer. IT and infrastructure hiccups? Destroys customer experience. Increased attrition? Leads to lower customer satisfaction. 

 

I made every Integrant problem my problem.

 

Our CEO led an exercise for our leadership team. We scored one another openly on 10 leadership attributes. My lowest score was for delegation. It was an open, public scoring system. I am second to the CEO and, therefore, wondered whether everyone was bold enough to score me accurately. I realized my scores were likely lower than folks were comfortable sharing. 


I trusted very few people to competently tackle issues. Everyone was allowed to delegate their biggest challenges, upwards, to me. In addition to this weight, I wasn’t practicing self-care or sleeping well. My team had not been receiving the best version of me. 


In our monthly Chief session, we talked about the differences between sympathy and empathy. It was eye-opening.

 

Sympathy's Role in Empowering Effective Leadership in Self-Driven Teams

When we skillfully navigate the balance of sympathetic leadership while cultivating healthy boundaries at work, we empower individuals and teams. When we continuously practice empathy, we stifle our people. Empathy has a place, but when overused, we create the opposite of self-driven teams. We think we are helping our people, but we are stunting their growth.

Sympathy looks like: 

1. Active listening and asking questions 

2. Encouraging a brainstorm and creating space for their ideas 

3. Supporting their decisions – whether the result is good or bad 

4. Creating a safe space to make mistakes, learn, and grow 

5. Autonomous, independent, confident teams 

Sympathetic leadership, empowering others, trusting your team isn’t just healthy for the organization, it’s also self-care and a positive cycle of trying, failing, learning, succeeding, and growing for both you and your team. Through this journey, I’ve learned some people are more comfortable with empathetic leadership styles because they are afraid to take a step, worried it's the wrong step, and reluctant to make mistakes or take risks. It's important to create an environment where mistakes are encouraged. Within this safe space, coupled with sympathetic leadership, people feel safe to learn and grow. 


Today, I’m learning healthy boundaries at work, investing time with people who seek advice, ideas, solutions, and support. I enjoy working with people who crave space to learn and grow. I’m doing my best to be a good role model for current and future leaders, setting and showing folks what appropriate boundaries look like. 

 

I remind myself and those closest to me: 

1. Other people’s problems are not our responsibility. It is not our job to fix people. 

2. It is okay to say no. 

3. It is okay if people are disappointed or angry. 

4. We don’t have to anticipate the needs of others. 

5. We don’t have to respond to everyone immediately. 

6. We are not responsible for anyone’s happiness – just our own. 

7. We have a right to our feelings.  


Towards Achieving Healthy Boundaries at Work: My Personal Journey

I’m only at the beginning of this journey and still learning a lot every day. Here are the initial steps I took: 

1. List the people in your inner circle and determine whether they are energizing or depleting your energy.  

2. Invest most of your time with people who are solution oriented and seeking autonomy. 

3. Have a heart-to-heart (or two or three) with people who expect you to solve their problems.  

4. Limit time with people who don’t understand nor seek to improve. 

5. Check in to assess: Where did I spend my time? How do I feel? Are my relationships improving? Are we accomplishing more? How do the people around me feel? 

I used the above exercise for both professional and personal relationships. Some days I make a lot of progress and other days (and in some relationships) I find myself regressing. It’s good to remember to be kind to yourself, improving requires practice, and change happens over time.  

 

Promoting Healthy Boundaries at Work Through Sympathetic Leadership

When we practice sympathetic leadership, we innately start to give them trust not only to succeed but also to make mistakes freely and learn throughout the journey which is most essential for their growth and development. It takes practice and it’s a long road so being aligned with your self-driven teams and making sure you’re all on the same page is also very important. 


In another blog, I talk about using a nudge word to remember your good intentions for the year.  My word is happy* with an asterisk--healthy boundaries and sympathy and empowering others over empathy. Stay tuned! 

Related Posts

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