Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy: Why We Need to Value Empathy More

Empathy: Photo of two hands holding a flower

Empathy and compassion are critical for high-performing academic leaders, but institutions often undervalue these leadership competencies due to implicit gender bias. Let's look at how to counter that tendency. This is the second in a series of articles on challenging androcentrism in higher education.

by Rosalind Spigel, Organizational Development Consultant and Leadership Coach, Spigel Consulting 

In this second article, we'll look at one set of leadership traits we identified earlier in the series: empathy and compassion. We'll examine:

  1. Why this leadership competency is linked to high performance.
  2. How androcentrism and implicit bias limit our ability to recognize and leverage this leadership competency in higher education.
  3. How we can take steps to improve this situation - at the organizational level, at the team level, and as individuals.

How Empathy and Compassion are Linked to Leadership and Team Performance

As the idea of emotional intelligence has become more accepted in the years since Goleman, Boyatzis, and McGee began publishing their research on it, acceptance of empathy and compassion as leadership competencies has also become more common. As a leadership competency, empathy is defined as the ability to:

  • Be curious about and understand the motivations of others.
  • Relate to differing experiences.
  • Imagine how others might feel.

Compassion moves beyond understanding to action, such as acting in someone else’s interest. In the human systems that are our colleges and universities, managing conflict, coordination, and relationships is paramount. Leading with empathy and compassion inspires trust, and trust strengthens relationships at the individual, team, and system levels. We know that addressing conflict with an empathetic skill set -- including listening, openness, and understanding -- can prevent a situation from either degenerating or escalating, and will likely lead to positive outcomes (Pressley, 2012).

Reviewing the literature, it's easy to find research documenting the importance of demonstrating and teaching empathy and compassion, but there hasn't been much written on how empathy and compassion are (or could be) practiced by administrative leaders in higher education. We can, however, extrapolate from research in other sectors. In "Leader Empathy: The Key to Effective Relationships" Matthew Lippincott (2018) relates these examples:

  • Increased ability to recognize the triggers and early signs of stress, anxiety, and conflict in his employees helped one leader minimize these issues and identify opportunities to help staff restore calm and focus.
  • A second leader reported that understanding another person’s concerns and needs can aid them in creating new opportunities for their development and win-win scenarios.

And in a noted study of highly effective teams, Google found that on high-performing teams, “all of the team members had a higher than average ability to read other people's emotions based on their facial expressions,” and that empathy was correlated with team members' reported experience of psychological safety (Camarote, 2016). Another key characteristic noted in the same study -- the relatively equal distribution of talk time in meetings -- is an indication of compassion (empathy in action).

How Androcentrism Limits Our Ability to Develop Empathy in Leaders

However, while empathy and compassion have become more recognized as key contributors of emotional intelligence and high performance, the practice of developing empathy and compassion as leadership competencies remains stubbornly uneven -- both in higher education and in other sectors.

In his anatomy lecture, a professor jokingly included a slide of a nude pinup (Lipman, 2018). In the private sector, a recent New York Times article (Creswell, et. al. 2018) detailed the years of harassment, abuse, and experiences of being passed over for promotions that women at Nike endured. We could infer that if empathy and compassion had been normalized as key leadership competencies, women within those organizations would not have had to endure pinups, conversations about the best strip clubs, and references to their breasts in emails.

The examples may be obvious and egregious, but they illustrate the ubiquity of androcentrism (DiAngelo, 2012), which is defined as consciously or unconsciously placing a masculine point of view at the center of culture and history, thereby viewing women or any “other” as a deviation from the norm. In our andocentric world, a woman in leadership is perceived by default as a deviation from the norm. This creates the condition where men’s leadership strengths are overvalued, while women’s leadership strengths are undervalued. As empathy and compassion are leadership qualities generally associated with women, these capacities are frequently overlooked and underappreciated in both men and women -- particularly in organizational cultures that prioritize competition over interpersonal collaboration or individual achievement over team effectiveness.

The normative expectations for leadership behavior in our organizations are that men will use authoritarian, top-down approaches, while women are expected to use empathy, compassion, and negotiation to get things done. But in practice, these expectations prevent our institutions from developing the capacity of their leaders. Men may be less incentivized to temper assertiveness (a key leadership competency we'll discuss later in the series), while women are often placed in a no-win scenario. A display of too much empathy (or any emotion for that matter) and she is viewed as soft and unprofessional. Not enough compassion and she is viewed as cold and unapproachable. Because we interpret leadership qualities androcentrically, this gender bias against women and against these particular competencies is not going to be overcome just by how well these qualities are mastered and deployed by a handful of women.

To be effective, systems need a combination of authority, high expectations, empathy, and compassion. For individuals, teams, and organizations to benefit, women and men need to encourage, validate, institutionalize, and improve the practice of empathy and compassion in leadership.

What Steps Can We Take to Improve?

WHAT THE INSTITUTION CAN DO

For organizations, imbuing compassion and empathy at the systems level means a culture change. In higher education, this is particularly the case because risk aversion, personal commitment to the work (particularly among faculty and academic leaders who entered their career as faculty, for whom work and personal identity are often closely tied), and the high emphasis on individual achievement and excellence can easily be distorted into a drive for perfectionism. Perfectionism is one of the ways in which androcentrism is expressed in organizational behavior. Jones and Okun identified perfectionism as a characteristic of white supremacy culture, and, to detect it, listed these markers:

  • Little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing. When appreciation is expressed, it is directed at "the usual suspects" who regularly receive the credit for work that many contributed to.
  • It is common to hear leaders and colleagues point out how either a person or their work is inadequate.
  • It is common to talk with colleagues about the inadequacies of a person or their work without discussing the matter with the person in question.
  • Mistakes are treated as personal; they reflect badly on the person making them, rather than being seen as learning opportunities.
  • Making a mistake is frequently confused with being a mistake, or doing wrong is confused with being wrong.
  • Little time, energy, or funds are invested in reflection or identifying lessons learned from mistakes that can then improve practice.
  • There is a tendency to identify what is wrong, but little ability to identify, name, appreciate, and further develop what is right.

Jones, et al. also offer several behavioral antidotes to perfectionism. These "antidotes" require empathy and compassion, and open up opportunities for leaders with these traits to develop their teams, departments, or institutions as learning organizations. These antidotes include:

  • Develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that people’s work and efforts are appreciated.
  • Move from a focus on mistakes to a focus on learning. Establish the expectation that everyone will make mistakes and that those mistakes offer opportunities for learning.
  • Create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results.
  • Separate the person from the mistake; doing wrong is not being wrong.
  • When offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism.
  • Ask people within units across the institution to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism.

There are also organizational policies that a college or university can institute both to counter gender bias generally and to communicate by action that empathy and compassion are core organizational values, such as offering administrative staff flex time, providing childcare, mandating gender bias training, ensuring equal pay, and making salary information public and transparent.

WHAT TEAMS CAN DO

Here are two concrete steps that teams can take to validate and improve the practice of empathy and compassion: Team Start Up and Taking an Emotional Intelligence Team Assessment.

Team Start Up
The Team Start Up model (Cogan, 2018) can provide a structure for identifying and acting on opportunities to develop a team that is both demanding and compassionate. The goal is to foster productive relationships that drive performance. The model consists of four steps by which leaders can model and help their teams establish transparency, trust, and engagement:

  1. Preparation. In this step, the team leader clarifies her message and intended outcomes (e.g., more compassion and empathy). She prepares her remarks, answers to probable questions and objections, and communicates her expectations.
  2. Session Facilitation. The team leader starts with her prepared remarks and outlines a team activity to build trust and engagement.
  3. Team Activity. The activity could include a list of questions about how well the team expresses empathy and compassion. The team reflects on the questions individually, then discusses them in pairs or small groups.
  4. Report Out. Once the activity is completed, the small groups report back to the whole team, and the team leader facilitates a brief discussion to decide on the team’s areas for improvement and next steps.

Take an Emotional Intelligence Team Self Assessment
Either at the end of a meeting or in a standalone meeting, a team schedules time to assess itself on open communication, constructive conflict, effective problem solving and decision making, strong relationships, shared talk time, and shared leadership. Using a 1-5 scale (from 1= highly ineffective to 5 = highly effective), each team member rates the team’s effectiveness in these categories, then combines the individual scores to identify and prioritize areas for improvement. The team then establishes an action plan and timeframe for improvement, and sets a date to reconvene and review its progress.

WHAT INDIVIDUALS CAN DO

As individuals, you can self-assess your emotional intelligence using the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test, and you can take the Harvard Implicit Bias test to self-assess gender and other types of bias that may be influencing your perspective. Matthew Lippincott (2018) also offers these investigative questions that you can ask yourself in order to strengthen your capacity for empathy:

  1. How do you think a certain person feels about a specific event or topic?
  2. How would you feel if you were in their position?
  3. What facts do you have upon which to base your answers to 1 and 2?
  4. What is your plan to obtain accurate information from that person?
  5. How can you avoid coming to such conclusions in the future?

Investigate Further

The next article in this series is "Challenging Androcentrism in the Academy: Developing Self-Aware Leaders."

You may also be interested in Academic Impressions' conference Women's Leadership Success in Higher Education.

References

Camarote, R. "What Google's New Emotional Intelligence Study Says About Teamwork and Success." Inc.com. March 14, 2016.

Cogan, M. “Accelerating a New Leader’s Entry: New Team Start Up.” OD Practitioner. Vol. 50 No. 2, 2018.

Creswell, J., et al. “At Nike, Revolt Led by Women Leads to Exodus of Male Executives.” New York Times, 28 Apr. 2018.

Diangelo, R. What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. Peter Lang, New York, NY. 2012.

Goleman, D., et al. Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence. Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Kenneth, J. and Okun, T. "White Supremacy Culture." ChangeWork, 2001.

Kotter, J. P. Organizational Dynamics: Diagnosis and Intervention. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 1978.

Lipman, J. That's What She Said: What Men Need to Know (and Women Need to Tell Them) About Working Together. HarperCollins, 2018.

Lippincott, M. “Leader Empathy: The Key to Effective Relationships.” Key Step Media, 7 Mar. 2018.

Pressely, D. "The Importance of Empathy in the Workplace." Smart Business. November 16, 2012.

Photo above by Ester Marie Doysabas on Unsplash.