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).


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