Most team effectiveness advice floating around the interwebs makes it sound like one size should fit all. There’s one miracle cure, one silver bullet, and one best practice. I don’t buy it. If there’s one thing my training as a psychologist taught me, it’s that different humans have different needs, and the same approaches won’t work for everyone. So, I’m returning to my psychologist roots with a series on a few of the most salient individual differences and how they impact relationships and teams.

I’m starting with a juicy one–empathy!

What is Empathy, and How Does it Show Up at Work?

Empathy is the capacity for understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another (without having the feelings communicated explicitly).  That’s a paraphrase of the Merriam-Webster definition you can read here.

Empathy is hot right now. It’s in.

But is empathizing always the best approach? If you sit with a stressed-out colleague and connect emotionally about their experience, will they feel better or value you more afterward?

It depends. (‘It depends’ could be the most psychologisty phrase ever!)

It depends on how the person defines “helpful.”

What Does Helpful Look Like for You?

There’s no one formula for being helpful. Instead, what type of assistance you offer should match what the other person is looking for. And what they’re looking for is likely a function of their personality.

Type #1: The Pragmatist

Pragmatists like to keep things practical and to the point. They share their issues and challenges with colleagues in hopes they’ll offer some ideas for what to do next. They save their appreciation for those who bring a brass-tacks approach to solving problems. Pragmatists are looking for people to respond to their concerns with concrete, workable suggestions.


Type #2: The Emotive

Emotives need an outlet for their feelings. They vent their issues and challenges to reduce the pressure that would otherwise build up. They appreciate others who are sympathetic while remaining hands-off in response to their problems. Emotives want people to support them without hijacking the situation.

It’s alarming how many uncomfortable interactions among teammates (not to mention among spouses) come from a mismatch between the form of help one person is looking for and what the other person thinks will be helpful.

Example: Imagine someone pulls up at your desk, perches their left butt-cheek, and starts unloading on you. They’re having trouble with a colleague who is ignoring them, and you’re getting the full rundown.

If we over-simplify, we can think of this situation as a 2×2 (ok, that’s another psychologist thing…we LOVE a 2×2).

The first dimension is what approach your colleague needs: pragmatic versus empathetic.

The second dimension is which approach you offer. Voila!

Hitting the Mark

There are two ways to get it right.

2x2 grid showing empathy approaches that work and fail

First, if your colleague needs a concrete, task-focused approach, and that’s what you give them, it will be satisfying because they’ll find your responses useful. If they tell you all about the colleague who is ignoring them, and you suggest that they invite the boss to the next meeting, they’ll say, “that might just work,” give you a big smile and a “thanks, mate!” and carry on. All good.

A second way to get it right is if your colleague needs an empathetic, person-focused approach, and that’s what you dole out. They’ll be happy because they’ll feel supported. If they vent about the colleague who is ignoring them, and you say how much that sucks and ask how the person’s disengagement is affecting them, they’ll say, “thanks for understanding,” give you a big smile, tell you, “you’re the best!” and go on their way. Perfect.

So, the good news is, there’s a fifty-fifty chance your approach matches their needs.

That means there’s just as great a chance that your response misses the mark.

It’s a coin flip.

Missing the Mark

2x2 of empathy versus pragmatism

The first way you miss the mark is if your colleague needs a concrete, task-focused approach, and you respond by empathizing with how they feel. This ends up feeling like you’re spreading emotional goo all over the person. They get the ick. And they walk away feeling no more enlightened about what to do and just a little more awkward around you.

The alternative way to mess it up is if your colleague needs an empathetic, person-focused approach and you go in hard with solutions. Unfortunately, this makes them feel you aren’t listening and don’t care about them. It might even make them think you don’t have confidence that they can solve their problems and that you must rescue them.

How to React When Someone Shares a Problem

The secret in this situation is not to make assumptions but to ask the person what they need.

Solutions Not Sympathy

One colleague helping another colleague solve a problemAs they start into their diatribe, ask them to pause for one moment and say, “what do you need,” or “how can I help,” or “what are you looking for from me?”

If they say, “I’m at a dead end and need your ideas,” or “I need your help to influence so-and-so,” or “I’m hoping you can tell me what I’m missing,” then you shift into problem-solving gear. Be practical, be creative, and be quick.

Now, if your typical style is highly empathetic, this might make you feel a little hollow, but that’s ok. It’s not about you. What your teammate needs is your head, not your heart.

Sympathy Not Solutions

If, on the other hand, they say, “I just need to vent,” or “nothing, I’ll handle it,” or “I need a friendly face,” then you zip it and let them get it all out. Nod, smile, scowl at the appearance of the villains in the story, but whatever you do, don’t try to fix it.

If your usual style is to be highly pragmatic, this might cause you to pull a muscle. It’ll heal. And you’ll have a stronger relationship as the prize.

But what if you’re the one asking for help rather than proffering it?

How to Ask for the Help You Need

Ok, this section is going to be short. The answer is: ask for the help you need.

I’ll give you a few options if you’re unsure of the right words to say to advocate for yourself in a work-friendly way.

For the Pragmatist

“I’d love your suggestions on how I handle this.”

“I’m at the end of my rope and need some ideas about how to move the ACME account forward.”

“I’d love to share my experience and then get your take on how to change it.”

And if they start goo-ing their empathy all over you, try:

“Thanks for your support. What I’d value are any alternate approaches.”

“I’m ok; I just need some ideas for how to move forward.”

“I appreciate your empathy. What I need is for you to intervene with Vickie.”

For the Emotive

Colleague supporting an emotional coworker“Can I just vent for a moment?”

“I’m not looking for you to do anything; I just need to get this off my chest.”

“I’m gonna deal with this, but I’d like to talk it out first.”

And if they leap over their desk to go fix the problem, try:

“I know what I’m going to do; I just need a sounding board for a moment.”

“I don’t need you to do anything; I just need a little support.”

“I’ll feel better if I can figure it out for myself; I just need a minute in a safe space.”

Be the Help That’s Needed

Can you think of a relationship where your mismatch of styles creates friction? How might you reset by communicating about what form of help is most appreciated?

And if you want to have a great laugh, this comedy short captures the concept of pragmatist and emotive better than any article I could ever write. Enjoy!

or click here to watch on YouTube It’s Not About the Nail


This article is based on the dimension of emotional energy that we measure using the Birkman Method® assessment. We find The Birkman an incredibly helpful tool and use it with all of our team effectiveness clients. If you’re interested in understanding how individual differences impact your team, check out their website here.