Is empathy as an impediment to career success?


When I was 25 and working in a Marketing role in commercial radio, I missed out on what I believed was the promotion of my career. My then Managing Director knew how crushed I was, and was good enough to take me aside and tell me that he saw my abilities and drive, but the timing wasn’t right. I asked him why, and he said – ‘Annie, you have great insight, and with that comes softness and empathy – it might mean that it takes you a few years longer to get to where you need to in your career – but please don’t change – these qualities will make you”.


The message was a bitter pill at the time, but as I’ve progressed in my career and had the opportunity to manage and work with diverse professionals and groups, I’ve come to cherish these words and the reality that sits behind the message.


Of recent times, these traits combined with my marketing background was the reason that I was recruited to my first board role, which was to fill a skills gap that was missing in a mostly numerically and technically focused, board member profile. It was a great validation for my skills, experience and general approach to my profession.


Working now in the property and professional services sector, the road is paved with tough, take no prisoner personalities and organizational cultures that are focused solely on commercial outcomes, and I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “It’s not personal – it’s just business” as a way of excusing demanding and unchecked behavior. I have seen really talented people lose their confidence and question their sense of value and professional viability over their empathetic style and leanings towards “softer” business skills.


Softer skills – we also know them as emotional intelligence…the ability to have empathy, intuition, a capacity for listening, strategic thinking, negotiating. flexibility and team work. In a world where technology rules, these skills are an artform that are increasingly in short supply – and can set you apart from the rest.


If you are the empathetic character that craves career success – how do you navigate your way through head vs heart – walking that invisible line between being smart and upwardly mobile, all the while staying true to a personal sense of goodness and professional strengths? When there’s so much background noise, sometimes it’s hard to know -


I don’t pretend to have one single answer for staying true to your personal code while you pursue success, but I can share some insight drawn from the best (and worst) leaders that I’ve worked with. They have also been the cornerstone of some of our most successful client relationships and outcomes in five years of practice at Two Crowns Marketing .



So how can you leverage your empathetic style to your professional advantage?



1. Firstly I stress that without experience, knowledge and focus – walking into a room with a dazzling smile and all of the empathy in the world wont win you the business, the argument, or the promotion. So apply yourself to the development and maintenance of strong skill sets and capabilities, to support your having a seat at the table.


2. The worst decisions and poorest of behaviors are often driven by fear and uncertainty. The empathetic professional has the capacity to see through what’s not being said, picking up on subtle cues and building insight for future problem solving. People that don’t have these skills are likely to combust in situations of conflict and uncertainty - and ultimately add little or no value.


3. Capitalize on your belief in a people first approach - Being flexible, open and collaborative – these are all traditionally viewed as “soft” qualities – but are the hardest to master. The empathetic professional can be a powerful force when faced with the inflexible steamroller, the excessively facts based, “telling” type of individual/culture.


4. Empathetic professionals make wonderful managers that build high performing, loyal, long serving teams. Don’t let anybody persuade you otherwise.


5. Align yourself with a mentor that is like- minded someone that has enjoyed career success, but has retained those great people qualities that you suspect they started their journey with. They will help re-enforce the importance to retaining your soft skills, and how to use them to your advantage.


Armed with a sense of validation for your soft skills and your wonderful empathetic nature, you can move forward with confidence that your skills are highly valuable in the workplace, and will add immeasurable benefit for your stressed, overworked, confused clients, teams and stakeholders.



Anne Baker is Director and Founder of Two Crowns Marketing Communications. A Melbourne based marketing consultancy specializing in the property, professional services and community sector.


Acknowledgment to Diana Sarcasmo, Michael Field, Gary Roberts and Sue McKenzie as sources of insight and inspiration in the development of this article.