February 16, 2018

Empathy as the Leader’s Path to Change | Leading From the Library

Steven BellYou’re the leader. You have a vision. It will require real organizational change. Now what? Empathic leaders may do better at gaining followers than encouraging resistors.

In their excitement for a new idea or fundamental shift in direction, leaders expect others will naturally want to follow and offer their support. Yet even when leaders share a passionate vision and a concrete roadmap leading the way, often it is either too little to build support or concern at the prospect of change outweighs optimism for a better library future. Every library leader will at some point confront resistance to change. In leadership sessions and conference hallway conversations, I will hear from leaders, new ones in particular, perplexed by their inability to engage staff or team members in a productive change process. They wonder if it is something they are doing wrong or simply a case of staff digging in their heels to maintain the status quo—or quite possibly both.

Change Process Gone Bad

In a talk at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, renowned biographer Walter Isaccson told the audience, “I think the best way to learn how to be a good leader…is studying other people. Everybody does it differently.” In comparing and contrasting the leadership practices of Benjamin Franklin and Steve Jobs he encouraged attendees to study the stories and experiences of many different leaders across time and place. That recommendation resonates with me, and I recently came across such a story that may offer some leadership lessons. It takes place at the University of Florida Law School, where the new dean shared a vision and ambitious plan to move up in the national rankings. Faculty, instead of being inspired to move from good to great, accused their dean of using fear and retaliation tactics. Was the dean a toxic leader? Was the faculty totally change resistant? No doubt it was some of both that led to this dysfunctional conflict.

No Villains Here

Granted, higher education organizations may present unique cases. They can be notoriously change averse. Law schools may have even more resistant cultures. The University of Florida Law School strikes me as a classic case of the new leader who arrives with a vision of moving a good organization to a great one only to encounter entrenched resistance. No one is the villain here. The leader has the best of intentions. The faculty believe they too have the best interests of the community in mind. Where the tension exists is around how to become a better organization. Situations deteriorate when it becomes about personalities more than achieving a shared vision. The leader is out to get long-time staff. Workers just want to keep it the way they like it. The leader has no idea what it’s like to work on the front line. Workers want to create roadblocks to frustrate the leader. These accusations get us nowhere. We need to find common ground where all workers support change.

Getting to Change

So what can leaders to do to resolve the impasse? There is no dearth of change management literature. I’m partial to the book Switch by Dan and Chip Heath because it helps leaders understand why people are naturally change resistant and recommends strategies for overcoming it, such as starting with small steps and achieving tangible improvements as a foundation upon which more significant change may be built. Higher education leaders may adhere to the “garbage can” model of organizational decision-making, which advises to simply back off a change if there is resistance, be patient, and then come back to the idea when it may fit better as a solution to another organizational challenge or crisis. One path to resolution in times of change resistance I had not much considered is empathic leadership.

Give Empathy a Chance

Empathy as a critical quality for leaders was popularized in Daniel Goleman’s work about emotional intelligence. It is also a core component of Karol Wasylyshyn’s formula for achieving remarkable leadership. Elizabeth Borges, a women’s leadership program organizer and leadership consultant, recommends a particular practice, cognitive empathy. She shares three steps for achieving cognitive empathy. First, practice self-awareness so leaders are aware of their own emotions and can differentiate them from, and be in tune with, the emotions of others. Second, practice emotional connection to sense others’ emotions and feel them as well. Third, take action based on new insights and a commitment to change oneself. Together, these cognitive empathy steps may allow leaders to overcome their own biases or blindness to what’s preventing change, and approach it from a different perspective. The goal is to implement all three practices in order to be intentional about how we treat each other in the workplace.

Let’s Do This Together

Taking Isaccson’s advice, what is it that leaders can learn from the conflict at the Law School? How could the dean have done a better job of articulating the vision and engaging others to believe it could be achieved? Despite feeling an urgency that change is necessary now, perhaps the dean could have, upon sensing resistance to new possibilities, taken that step back to practice cognitive empathy. I believe it can be a valuable approach for leaders who want to achieve organizational change, but Borges advocates for us to embrace it to achieve better leadership. She states that “empathy isn’t always easy, and requires courage, especially since it often means connecting with people who aren’t like us.” There are multiple paths that leaders may take to bring workers together to achieve change. Cognitive empathy may deserve to be one of them.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Stephanie says:

    Interesting take on the importance of empathy. It seems sometimes we have boatloads of empathy for our co-workers but not really any for our customers. At some point, understanding aside, we are accountable to the people we serve. Have a working level of empathy but use it to better your services and to make your products deliver what people need.

    • Thanks for sharing your perspective on empathy Stephanie.

      You make a good point and I think that’s exactly what many libraries are doing with they use design thinking or user experience research methods to do the type of ethnographic research that offers that empathic examination of the community member. What does it look like to use the library from the user perspective.

      It’s still a fairly new method, but as more libraries explore the possibilities I think it will bring that empathic understanding of the library from the user point of view.

    • Interesting – I often find that “leaders” have boatloads of empathy for the customers but none for the non-managers.

  2. First of all, you aren’t really a “leader” until people willingly follow you – something which too many people in a “leadership position” ignore.

    Second, by being empathetic, leaders/managers can deduce why there is resistance; often because of factors invisible to them. For instance, how overworked are your staff, and do you know why? Have you provided a reasonable timetable for this change? Is it constructive and does it change from week to week, or even day to day, so that no one knows what is going on? Are you communicating clearly and respectfully? Are you allowing discussion and conversation so that a lot of the issues can be worked out? Have you procured the resources necessary to effect the change that you want to happen?

    Only then are you a leader and – I hate this phrase – a “change agent”.

    • Thanks for your comment Joneser.

      I think most librarians would agree with your points about leadership – especially the one about change agents.