Empathy is Not the Opposite of Expectations

Leadership tip: Psychological safety and empathy are not the opposite of expectations, accountability, and challenge

I keep encountering resistance to the terms “psychological safety” and “empathy.”

When we open the discussion, it often turns out that people aren’t resistant to the concepts, they’re resistant to their interpretation of the concepts.

In their mind, psychological safety and empathy equal coddling.  And they’re resistant to coddling.

Which makes sense.  Overprotecting and enabling unhelpful or unhealthy behaviour is rarely helpful.

We then need to talk more about what psychological safety and empathy are and aren’t. First, they are not coddling, overprotecting, or enabling. 

In his book The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, Timothy R. Clark defines psychological safety as “a condition in which you feel (1) included, (2) safe to learn, (3) safe to contribute, and (4) safe to challenge the status quo – all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished in some way.” 

At the root – you trust that the other person will treat you with respect, no matter what.  You can wade into a challenge, strive to meet expectations and be accountable, knowing if it doesn’t go perfectly, you’ll feel respected and supported to evaluate and try again. 

Having empathy means considering what others are thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It means getting more data about what’s going on in the situation and using that data to make better suggestions and choices. It doesn’t mean coddling, nor should it—empathy needs boundaries and accountability.

Psychological safety and empathy aren’t about “being soft” and lowering expectations; they’re about creating the conditions to support people to feel their best, do their best, and as a result, exceed expectations.