HomeTalentLeadership DevelopmentHow HR can coach leaders to balance empathy and boundaries effectively

How HR can coach leaders to balance empathy and boundaries effectively

  • 8 Min Read

In this article, HRD thought leader and researcher Dr. Beth Kaplan explains why it is so important for HR to effectively coach leaders to identify and manage situations where employees are taking advantage. To do this, leaders must learn how to balance their empathy and boundaries.

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For decades, people have debated whether great leaders are born or made. In 2014, a study by the University of Illinois College tried to end this argument with a study concluding that leadership is 30 percent genetic and 70 percent learned. These findings propose that leaders are made, not born. Case closed. 

Or is it? Is that the end? Is that even the right question to be asking? 

I propose that we start asking more questions. Just because leaders are appointed or self-proclaimed, does that mean they are fit to fill the uniform? More so, what does leadership look like in today’s climate? What is HR’s role in helping to redefine what leadership looks like? And how can HR not only identify but develop the corporate leaders of tomorrow in the best possible way?

What do we expect from our leaders today?

In this pandemic-driven climate, leaders are expected to wear many hats – beyond the Six Thinking Hats we all know are expected of us. Some of us do not have all the skills. We may never have.

One role that leaders are being asked to indirectly play – and may not be skilled for  – is the role of the therapist. According to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey results, 71 percent of employees feel stressed out during the workday day. It’s no wonder that leaders feel the need to deal with employee emotions in an attempt to do the right thing in today’s climate.

The workplace is trauma-informed and leaders are not trained mental help professionals. First line leaders are the most influential in their employees’ day-to-day lives, but they can’t do it alone. HR is a strong partner to help leaders understand the resources available to them to navigate rough waters.

People look to their leaders in times of uncertainty and change. We train leaders to actively listen with humility, be multipliers, be vulnerable, and express humanity, recognising their employees’ humanity as well. We want our leaders to have empathy, and while it has always been a critical skill, it has taken on new meaning over the last couple of years. And yet, as leaders, there are limits to how much we can do.

How do leaders know when they are being taken advantage of? And how can there be a balance in our own lives between being the servant leader and establishing healthy boundaries?


coach leaders


How do leaders spot when employees are taking advantage?

Recently, my friend Jim came to me with a challenging situation. One of his direct reports was a top performer, but in the last year, their performance had slipped. It wasn’t just one thing but several issues, and despite covering these issues in weekly one-to-ones, the individual’s performance had stayed the same. In fact, through the first year of the pandemic, they had excelled and helped others who were struggling. Now, Jim has to chase him down on deliverables. His direct report has a negative attitude and speaks negatively about him to people on their team.

Several times throughout the conversation, Jim said, “But we’re friends. When you work this closely with someone 40 hours a week for 5 years, you become friends. Yet when I give him feedback on his performance, he brings in personal issues that are starting to feel contrived. Or maybe I am upset that he is only bringing them up when I bring up my concerns about his performance.”

During their last performance review, Jim’s employee unloaded about his breakup with his girlfriend and the stress it is causing him. Jim told me this is common and is becoming a pattern, making Jim question if his employee is taking advantage of him. Even when employees have serious personal issues to deal with, they still must meet performance expectations and act professionally. 

There is a lot to unpack here but ultimately, in this situation, Jim put the individual on a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Despite it being a difficult decision, leaders are people too and go through many of the same challenges their employees face. It can be tricky for leaders to spot when employees are taking advantage of them, and know what and when HR can help.

Actions for HR to coach leaders on

1 – Recognise that leaders are people too

Most in HR focus on what leaders can do for employees, but we’re ignoring the impact that said employees have on the lives of leaders. Ask yourself, are your leaders being coached or grown themselves and if not, is it breeding a culture of defensiveness? Leaders need HR to have their backs too as they start their leadership journey and throughout their time at the company. Yet, research shows that leaders perceive that going to HR is a career-ender and that HR will side with an individual contributor because of liability concerns. Show them that the relationship between leadership and HR is a partnership.

2 – Remember that leaders are made, not born

When you have a new leader join your organization or they are promoted to leadership, make sure that you give them a leadership development plan to put in place that follows a specific progression. While leadership is best learned by experience, leaders must understand it’s a journey of development. No one assumes they are a leadership expert on day one.  

3 – Inspire empathy with boundaries

Leaders show care about their direct reports while establishing clear boundaries so that a work friendship doesn’t cross the line of professionalism. Relationships should be friendly and respectful. While positive rapport is critical, once it becomes too personal it may hinder leaders’ ability to judge performance, creating a rift in the team whether the leader realises it or not.

The bottom line is that leaders are responsible for assessing and improving the performance of their teams. Coach leaders to establish a good rapport with members of their team. They must understand rapport is important, but boundaries need to be established in order to prevent conflict of interest and company ethics.

4 – Coach leaders on how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable

They will not always be liked and the truth is leaders can feel very lonely. Leaders can feel like they can’t win–and the question needs to be reframed to “what is winning?” Winning doesn’t mean that everyone likes you. Winning is meeting goals, retaining your employees, and growing your team. Hierarchy may be frowned upon, but it is still needed and you need to be good with that. Followers need to understand that transparency and equity don’t mean you are in parity with your leader in management.

Coach leaders to be inclusive by making their direct reports feel part of the organisation but with the realisation that not everyone needs to be a cook in the kitchen.

5 – Teach leaders how to spot insubordination

Being taken advantage of is hard, especially since no one wants to admit being the sucker. HR can coach leaders on seeing the warning signs,  like when an employee’s line of excuses is irrational when there is a pattern of toxicity, when an employee fails to listen to the leader’s direction, and as a result, there are clear consequences for insubordination.

6 – Teach the PIP system

Most leaders don’t know how a PIP works until they have to and by that time, it feels like you are months behind on either coaching someone up or out. PIPs can be a great tool for the leader and employee to address performance deficiencies, address behaviour-related issues, and give said employee the opportunity to succeed. That being said, it needs to be well documented far in advance.

Coach leaders on the PIP process as you onboard them so that they know that they have this tool in their toolbox before they need to use it.


HR is at a pivotal point. There is a great opportunity to redefine corporate leadership at the first line and coach leaders on how to establish the balance of empathy and boundaries while inspiring connection and high performance. The state of regrettable attrition is high.

According to data from the people analytics firm Visier, 1 in 4 workers quit their job this year in 2021 and good, strong leaders are hard to replace, coach and grow. After all, studies like this research on leaders and belonging in the workplace show that when leaders feel better about themselves, they can do a better job of showing support for their subordinates.

After all, we’re all human and all want to feel appreciated, respected, and like HR has our backs. HR can help leaders establish the right boundaries, help spot when employees are taking advantage of them, and establish the right balance in leadership.


Dr. Beth Kaplan Kondonijakos is a researcher and storyteller with expertise in belonging, belonging in the workplace, and workplace trauma. Beth is currently conducting research and supporting the development of these areas as they inform the future of work. She has 15 years of experience in learning and leadership strategy and is proven at improving retention and transforming company culture. 

Beth is currently the global head of leader development and enablement at Dassault Systemes. Prior to this, she started leader development at Salesforce and is credited as a thought leader in this space. Beth holds an MSE.d and ED.D in Learning and Leadership Strategy from The University of Pennsylvania.

You can reach her by her LinkedIn or email: [email protected] 


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