• The 4 Manager’s Attitudes: from Apathy to Empathy!

    Experts often advise us to adopt an empathetic attitude towards others to make the best of interpersonal communication. But what does that mean? How can we better understand this attitude to build healthy relationships?


    Why is it important for a manager to make sure their employees feel heard, understood, and supported in their development?


    The 3 Perceptive Filters

    Imagine you’re running a marathon of meetings, crossing your office’s hallways, your mind running a thousand miles a minute and, while zigzagging between the day’s affairs, you see a colleague at the water cooler who calls you over to join her. No chance. You would have liked to know how her recent move went but, since you’re short for time, you signal to her by pointing at your watch. She got the message: small talk isn’t one of your day’s priorities.


    What just happened in your mind? Whether consciously or not, you’ve adopted an attitude of unavailability, which makes you refuse your colleague’s invitation. You’ve built this attitude through several perceptive filters in your brain:


    1. The cognitive filter broke down the information you know about the current situation (lack of time, priorities to meet, relationship with your colleague, etc.)
    2. The affective filter broke down all the emotions this situation made you feel (regret, frustration, sympathy for your colleague, etc.)
    3. The behavioural filter informed you how to act in this situation (demonstrate your unavailability as reason for the refusal)


    Of course, our knowledge, our values, and our emotional states are constructs that come from our personal experience, and this example could have ended up a thousand other ways depending on each person’s perceptive filter. But it still demonstrates the process of creating an attitude (based on a context) that helps people deal with reality.


    Communicating is acting

    Even if attitudes can be automatic (like always buying the same brand of soap), the human being systematically goes through an attitude-creation process before acting. And, like all forms of communication are a way to act and modify another’s behaviour, it is logical that the communicator’s attitude influences the form and content of their message.


    From Apathy to Empathy

    In this perspective, it is interesting to list the different positions that a manager can take facing employee feedback.


    We’re going to break down the mechanisms of four attitudes1 (apathy, antipathy, sympathy, and empathy) and ask you to think about their effect on managerial communication. There are different ways a manager could react to an employee’s concern based on the manager’s attitude toward that person and the content of the message:

    When an employee conveys a negative attitude overshadowed by concern, it is built through several perceptive filters: they know there’s going to be a project that doesn’t really fit with their job (cognitive filter), which causes them to worry (affective filter) and is a blow to their morale, demonstrated through a complaint (behavioural filter).


    How effective a manager’s response is depends on their own attitude, which would work to adapt the employee’s different perceptive filters that led to their concern.


    When a Manager is Apathetic


    Communication is ineffective because the manager totally ignores the employee’s feeling of concern. The response is limited to a technical and rational rhetoric that doesn’t consider the counterpart as a psychological being.


    Cognitive filter: The manager has perfectly understood the project’s technical aspects, but doesn’t see how it could affect their employees emotionally.

    Affective filter: The manager does not perceive nor share their employee’s feeling of concern.

    Behavioural filter: The manager is not willing to dignify their employee’s concern.


    When a Manager is Antipathetic


    Communication is ineffective because, even though the manager has understood the emotion, they have still coldly rejected it. This response will cause the employee to be frustrated from not having been understood.


    Cognitive filter: The manager has perfectly understood the project’s technical aspects. They are aware of the emotions it causes the employee, but believes these emotions are unjustified.


    Affective filter: The manager is not experiencing the same concern as their employee, and they refuse to share it.


    Behavioural filter: The manager is not willing to dignify their employee’s concern.


    When a Manager is Sympathetic



    Communication is ineffective since, even though the manager has understood and shared the emotions, a sympathetic attitude is not a managerial response because it paralyses the employee in their concern and prevents them from adapting to the situation.


    Cognitive filter: The manager understands how the project could affect their employees emotionally.


    Affective filter: The manager feels as concerned as their employee, and doesn’t hesitate to share it wholeheartedly.


    Behavioural filter: The manager is willing to comfort their employee with the intention of sharing their own feelings. They do not try to respond with a constructive perspective.


    When a Manager is Empathetic

    Communication is effective because the manager perfectly understands the other’s emotion and accepts it, even if they do not share it. In this response model, the manager successfully responds to all the elements of the employee’s negative perception.


    Cognitive filter: The manager understands how the project could affect their employee emotionally.


    Affective filter: Even if they were able to put themselves in their employee’s shoes, the manager still does not share the employee’s feeling of concern.


    Behavioural filter: To relieve their employee’s concern, the manager explains to the employee why they do not feel the same concern, even if they are able to understand it.


    Empathy in a Dynamic Collective

    Here we have demonstrated the use of empathy in a one-on-one interaction. But it is essential to all teamwork. Whether it requires thinking or making decisions together, managing and understanding the three components is crucial to developing a climate of trust2, in turn making the group more effective. A manager that embraces this approach will surely ask themselves the following questions: Is each employee at the table able to listen, understand, and support one another? Am I able, as a manager, to work on the three perceptive filters that form the basis of my employees’ attitudes? How can I help my employees develop empathy to improve how my group works?


    Finally, empathy often depends on our knowledge and personal sensitivities. The first step to developing empathy in a group situation is becoming aware of other people’s realities. As a result, active listening, respect, and an open mind, can always be useful on the path to empathy…

    Christel Christophe and Lionel Barets, on 7 August 2013

    1 Proposed by Patrick Légeron in his book Le stress au travail (Stress at work) (p. 266, 2001, Odile Jacob), offering the use of an analysis grid on the management approach to emotions, which inspired this article.

    Reference to the article “La confiance, une glue sociale indispensable pour développer l’efficacité !” (Trust: the social glue you need for effectiveness!) http://convidencia.com/fr/news/blog/