We are on Week Two of my four week series looking at some of the key leadership paradoxes. Click here to read last week’s blog in case you missed it. This week’s case is about the overly-empathetic HR Director.
Did you pursue a career in Human Resources because you like helping people? Many, maybe even most, HR professionals get that warm, fuzzy feeling from relieving employees’ pain. Empathy is an essential ingredient in a successful HR career. However, empathy can be a double-edged sword.
I recently worked with a client, Gerri, who was experiencing burnout. She was a great HR Director, but she was experiencing symptoms that were beginning to affect her job performance: fatigue, forgetfulness, irritability, and a “why bother?” attitude towards her work. For someone who had previously been a star performer, these symptoms were frightening. She came to me concerned that she might need to change careers, although that wasn’t what she really wanted to do.
Through coaching Gerri with Harrison Assessments, we found the sore spot: her Driving Paradox score. The Driving Paradox consists of two opposing traits: Enforcing and Warmth & Empathy.
- Enforcing is the tendency to insist upon following necessary rules.
- Warmth & Empathy refers to the tendency to express positive feelings and affinity towards others.
When they’re in balance, scores are high in both traits and the person enforces necessary rules with compassion. When they’re not, problems follow in short order.
We’ve all encountered someone who has a “rules are rules—period!” attitude. They enforce rules that are outdated and may not even make sense because they believe rules must be followed at all costs. People who score high on Enforcing, but low on Warmth & Empathy, tend to rely on rules to a detrimental degree. They tend to maintain rules that aren’t beneficial to employees, which can cause a lack of trust from employees. If employees don’t trust HR to help them, employee dissatisfaction follows and leads to costly employee turnover. Without Warmth & Empathy, the Enforcing trait undermines teamwork and demotivates employee performance. So you’d rather have some in HR who scores high in Warmth & Empathy, right? Not so fast.
On the other hand, scoring high in Warmth & Empathy but low in Enforcing has its own set of problems. It can result in poor employee performance due to complacency and decreased accountability, unnecessary mistakes and losses, resentment from other employees, passive resistance, and poor teamwork due to bad behavior. If rules are rarely or inconsistently enforced, employees will not trust HR, resulting in lower engagement. HR people are often compassionate, scoring high in Warmth & Empathy. They need to guard against becoming too emotionally involved in solving employees’ problems and maintain compassionate objectivity. In doing so, they can maintain their value to the company as a strategic asset, win employee trust, and prevent their own burnout.
My client, Gerri, scored high in Warmth & Empathy, but lower than optimal in Enforcing. With coaching, she was able to identify instances where she was exhibiting too much Warmth & Empathy and not applying the rules appropriately. She was able to re-establish professional compassion but not become overly emotionally involved in solving employee issues, alleviating her feelings of burnout. She has returned to the caring and effective performer she had previously been.
Are you feeling the tell-tale signs of burnout? Here’s a quiz on the HR Specialist website you can take to see if you’re burning out.