Empathy vs Sympathy: What Kind of Museum Leader Are You?


We all want to be liked. Being loved is not half bad either, but sometimes one of the things museum leaders struggle with is how empathy versus sympathy plays itself out in the workplace. A lot of museums–at least here in the United States–are small. They are run by dedicated boards of trustees, long-serving volunteers, the director, and a small paid staff, that may range from as few as three to as many as 15 people. In a workplace that intimate, it’s easy for “we’re a family” culture to thrive. I know, I sound like a workplace Scrooge. And perhaps you’re saying, “But my staff is a family.” And my answer is: if it works for you and your peeps, go forth, and do good. But make sure it really is working and you’re not confusing silence on the part of some staff with complicity.

At this time of year, with the summer coming to a close, leaders–museum leaders and others–open meetings with a “What did you do this summer?” question. The intent is generous. Get everyone talking, they will see each other as human, they’ll bond, life will be good. But perhaps that’s a moment to be empathetic. It’s fine to open a meeting with an open-ended question, but be mindful of what you are asking and who is answering. There may be staff members who genuinely do not want to share. They feel they are there to work, and they don’t want to talk about their backpacking trip in the Cascades with anyone but friends. There may be others who have family issues that absorbed their vacation  time. They might not want those revealed. Or staff may feel judged by sharing their vacation choice. Bottom line: whatever you’re asking, it’s not about whether you would answer it, it’s about you putting yourself in another’s shoes and imagining them answering. If , on your way to work, when you imagine the post-summer meeting playing out from your staff’s point of view, you imagine even the slightest whiff of anxiety, think of another question. Instead, ask something that begins with the personal, but points to work, which is after all, the common thread. For example, what thing, adventure, reading material, music, theatre made them think of their work in a new way?

Which brings us to the question of sympathy. Sympathy is another symptom of a work culture where the staff thinks of itself as family.  Webster’s online dictionary defines sympathy as ” the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble.” In contrast, it describes empathy as ” the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Note that in the former, all you need to do is feel sorry for someone; in the latter, you share and understand their feelings.” Again, I don’t mean to sound like Scrooge. And I’m certainly not advocating throwing sympathy out the office window. If a co-worker experiences a personal tragedy, all but the meanest of us, feel sorry. But in the workplace, especially a small workplace, leaders sometimes become chronic sympathizers. They feel sorry for a staff member for whatever reason–they’re sick, they’re emotional–and that “sorriness” becomes the template for actions going forward. It enables and it allows a staff person to tread water, never resolving what’s happened, and worse, never moving ahead with work, which is the reason you, the leader, see them every day. And, the bottom line, it’s not fair to other staff, staff who are, perhaps, more reserved, and choose not to share their personal lives in the workplace, but who can plainly see who is excused (again) from staying late or working the weekend because of their problems.

So what’s a leader to do? Well, be self-aware. Understand the differences between sympathy and empathy. Use them appropriately. Encourage your staff–especially your front of the house staff–to use empathy. Maybe then the red-faced mother with the wailing toddlers won’t seem like something from a horror movie. And last, if you think of your staff as family, make sure that you understand what you’re asking and be alert to how your staff buys in.

Enjoy the dog days, and be in touch.

Joan Baldwin

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