When empathy gets too much: Perspective taking and "not empathizing with the enemy"

November 23, 2022

When empathy gets too much: Perspective taking and "not empathizing with the enemy"

“Never write about a place until you’re away from it because that gives you perspective.”—Ernest Hemingway

Let’s talk about empathy for a bit. There’s been a lot of talk about empathy in leadership, especially in the past two years. Empathy is good. It is a powerful tool in your arsenal if you want to become a great leader. But when we empathize too much, it can lead to adverse results.

Yes, there’s such a thing as having too much empathy, and it can affect our decisions and motivate the wrong actions. It can also be damaging not just to ourselves but to others and to the community, too.

The right amount of empathy, with the right timing, can produce great results. It can help us improve employee engagement and customer loyalty and positively impact our relationships—both business and personal. That’s why it is even more important to get clarity on where (and when) we should draw the line and say, “This is too much!”

When is empathy “too much”?

Empathy, at its core, is the ability to understand and feel the way others feel. In simpler terms, you can put yourself in their shoes, see the situation from their perspective, and feel as they do. It has a strong correlation with emotional intelligence, another crucial quality that effective leaders would like to possess.

While it is a powerful tool in leadership, it is important to know that empathy is not the same as caring for others or showing them kindness. And in some situations, being overly empathic can work against you rather than for you.

A practical example would be on a battlefield. In my previous conversation with David Livermore, he mentioned this to me. Empathy can be helpful as a commander in charge of strategy, carrying out missions, and leading your troops. If you know your enemy and understand how they think, you get a good idea of the strategies they might pick. It helps you be one step ahead by having countermeasures in place. This is what the great tacticians from different eras agree on.

But if you are a soldier fighting on the frontlines, empathy can even prove fatal. If you empathize too much with the enemy, it can make you hesitate, and a split-second is all it takes. It can cost you or your comrades' lives, or cause the mission to fail.

Of course, business and life aren’t necessarily on a battlefield, although we often hear them compared. As leaders and as entrepreneurs, we know that we are responsible for making tough decisions all the time.

Too much empathy can cause us to burn out, lead to poor decisions, and make us less effective. Take hiring and firing employees, for example. There are instances when we can make some leeway for their personal issues. 

You might decide to hire someone because they have a great need for money and they seem skilled enough. With proper training and investment, they’ll be a good addition to the team. But you can’t hire just anyone because they need a job.

If they weren’t the right person for the team or for the role, your empathy just caused harm to the person you hired (they might feel insecure about their own talents if they don’t improve even with training or feed a sense of entitlement within them) and to your team (performance and morale could be hurt by adding the wrong person to the team).

It’s the same thing with firing employees. You might understand that their poor performance is brought on by stress at home, but at some point, feeling sorry for them isn’t enough to keep them on board. 

Sometimes, it is even kinder to fire them so they can focus all their efforts on solving their issues, which helps them grow.

It is important to find a balance that leads to the best decision for all parties concerned. As Hemingway said, we need to have some form of distance, whether physical or emotional, in order to gain proper perspective. It is true for both running a business and maintaining personal relationships.

How far is a good enough distance? Perspective taking.

This balancing act of benevolence as a leader can be tough. If you are one of those who empathizes or feels too much, it is probably even harder to find this appropriate distance.

A shortcut you can try is to practice perspective-taking. According to Thrive Global, perspective-taking is “the act of imagining another person’s viewpoint by walking in their shoes, which provides a visual of their thoughts, motivations, intentions, and emotions.”

This helps you separate your internal environment—your thoughts, emotions, and biases—from the situation at hand.

You already have the empathy part down. All you need is a more objective view of the context. As Michelle Garcia Winner said, “When we can imagine someone else’s experiences or feelings as different from our own and understand they are no less important- we learn to sympathize and empathize.”

That separation of your own feelings from the feelings of others is a great start. It gets even better when you go a step further and develop perspectives from environments other than your own.


At the end of the day, empathy is important. It has its place in good leadership. But being a leader means being willing to make tough decisions, regardless of our feelings, in order to do the right thing and keep moving forward.

Leading with kindness isn’t always hand-holding. Sometimes it's also learning when to let go and let your people figure things out on their own. That’s how we can all grow and move forward together.

Thanks for reading “A Brilliant Tribe.”