4 tips for people managers who are empaths

Yin Sylvia
7 min readFeb 9, 2022


Few will argue with me when I say being a people manager is tough. You are figuratively (hopefully not literally) expected to be a human shield [1].

The strategy of learning to manage yourself to manage others better is not new, and personal experience has affirmed my conviction that you cannot pour from an empty cup.

I echo Julie Zhou when she says, “being a manager is a highly personal journey, and if you don’t have a good handle on yourself, you won’t have a good handle on how to best support your team” [2].

In 2014, I co-founded my first startup Shoppr at 22 and became a people manager for the first time that year. When I reflect on my people managing experience, I can identify a few nuggets of insight that I would have liked to share with my younger self.

If you are a people manager with an empath personality, I hope you will find some reassurance from my experience and spark some ideas on ways to scale yourself in your growth journey as a people manager.

Watch what you say to yourself

One of the first few things I would tell my 22-year-old self is to be mindful of how you talk to yourself. We all talk to ourselves all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not, and our thoughts influence our behaviour. Aim to treat everyone with respect — and that includes you!

The negative effects of my self-critical thoughts sunk in for me after reading The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden. Branden made me see that “self-esteem is the reputation we acquire with ourselves” and how “in the inner courtroom of my mind, mine is the only judgment that counts.” [3] In other words, nothing hurts us more than a negative opinion of the self. It is essentially a form of self-betrayal.

Have you noticed how you talk to yourself?

I have had my share of feeling like I let my team down and sometimes rode the self-judgmental train along my journey as a people manager. Once I learnt to watch my thoughts, I found they hurt more than my self-respect. My inner critic would also stop me from taking action decisively (e.g., “You’re not a good manager”). It then became more painful for me to take action and improve because I would then have to admit that I was wrong and not a terrible manager.

I am more careful about how I choose to talk to myself now. This does not mean only saying great things and patting myself on the back. Instead, it means adopting a healthier inner dialogue that allows these self-critical thoughts because they can identify paths to improvement, but does not let them derail me.

Do take the time to celebrate small victories. You deserve encouragement as much as your team. Find moments every week to list down what are you proud of having accomplished as a people manager. Our brains are wired for rewards [4], so when you see evidence that you are a good manager, you are more motivated to behave like one.

Know your Conditions of Enoughness (COE)

When you have only a handful of direct reports, it is often easy to try to be a great manager in almost every aspect. The challenge is a motivator, and the success is addictive. But then, one day, you find yourself stretched too thin across too many people while your business and team scale.

My younger self naïvely thought that my energy and capacity could scale linearly in proportion to the number of people reporting to me. I was trying to be 100% available, attentive and empathetic to everyone while also “getting shit done” for a team of 12 instead of 2.

I am not saying I would counsel the practice of selective empathy or the playing of favourites. I would like to teach my 22-year-old self the concept of Conditions of Enoughness (COE) [5].

In searching for a better way to scale myself, I learned about Conditions of Enoughness from the work of Jennifer Louden.

Louden points out how when you do not declare or define what satisfaction is for you, you will never feel enough has been accomplished. This can erode your ability to move forward with your work, trust your own ideas, and ultimately grow.

As Julie Zhou said in her Harvard Business Review article, “perfection is not an option” [6] when you step into a people managing role. I needed to ditch my unrealistic ideal of being 100% to everyone and establish for myself my COE to my team.

“I can be available for off-work hours except for Sunday when I will spend time with my family”. That’s one condition of enoughness.

“I cannot take a deeper look at your problem right now. But I can circle back tomorrow.” That is a condition of enoughness as well.

When we know what our COE is, we better protect ourselves against burnout. This leads me to my next piece of advice:

Watch your balance

I have found a quote I read from The Gottman Institute that is especially true in people managing: “Want to grow your emotional bank account? Make more deposits than withdrawals.” [7]

However you imagine this resource — as an emotional bank account or a tank of energy reserves or whatever you will — I have found myself incapable of responding to even simple requests from my team because I had overdrawn or am tapped out.

I would remind my younger self to make time to take stock of my “emotional bank account” and proactively make frequent “deposits”. Some “deposits” I would recommend to my younger self are journaling, getting enough sleep and spending time outdoors with nature.

Journaling is one of my favourite ways to make “deposits” into my “emotional bank account”

Of course, your deposits might look different from my deposits, but the important thing is that you make them because, like credit card debts, overexertion can spiral out of control if you are not careful.

Be as gracious to yourself as to others

I remember confessing to a friend back in 2019 during a cab ride to dinner how I felt like everything was my fault as a manager. If an employee quits, it is my fault for not creating a great work environment. If a new hire turns out to be a poor fit for the office culture, it is my fault because I hired her. If an employee makes a mistake, it is my fault because I did not get them the training that they needed.

“That’s not a way to live,” my good friend wisely replied, and it made me sad because it is true. Surely there must be a way to be accountable for the choices and consequences you have the privilege to make as a manager and not feel like you are a perpetual screw-up.

Reality is more complex and nuanced than the rules of the “blame game” allow. My direct report, my manager, and I are fallible human beings who are 100% guaranteed to make mistakes. Perhaps the most grievous mistake we can make is to stand in the way of turning an error into a learning opportunity by either beating ourselves up or taking no responsibility at all.

Treat yourself you’d treat a good friend. When they are down, you’ll offer support and encouragement.

Over time, I have realised that it is entirely unproductive to focus on whose fault it was. Let us say that as a manager every outcome concerning your direct report is your fault. Then does it not stand to reason that every mistake you make is your manager’s fault too? Where is the blame train’s terminus?

Learning to treat yourself with grace is non-negotiable because when the going gets tough, being courteous and respectful toward yourself provides the motivation to recover from failure and foster resilience to adversity [8]. All of which is very much needed when managing a team.

I recommend the resources available on Dr. Kristin Neff’s website [9] if you want to improve your skill at practicing self-compassion. (Yes, it’s a skill, and isn’t that fantastic news?)


People managing is a personal journey, and each of us will walk away with different experiences and lessons. I had to learn to manage my caretaker personality and move away from subscribing to sayings like “effective leaders are available one way or another for their teams 24/7, 365 days a year” and “the first rule of leadership is that everything is your fault.” These are actual “inspirational” phrases that I have lifted from LinkedIn posts and online articles. They can be harmful to the manager and a massive disservice to their teams. Instead, cultivate a healthy inner dialogue with yourself, set conditions of enoughness, take stock of your energy levels, and learn to show yourself compassion.


[1] https://hbr.org/2010/09/managing-yourself-the-boss-as-human-shield

[2] https://fellow.app/blog/management/julie-zhuo-the-making-of-a-manager/

[3] https://experiencelife.lifetime.life/article/the-six-pillars-of-self-esteem/

[4] https://extension.umn.edu/two-you-video-series/celebrate-small-stuff

[5] https://jenniferlouden.com/conditions-of-enoughness/

[6] https://hbr.org/2019/03/as-your-team-gets-bigger-your-leadership-style-has-to-adapt

[7] https://www.gottman.com/blog/invest-relationship-emotional-bank-account/

[8] https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2015/10/01/science-explains-the-link-between-self-compassion-and-success/?sh=3d2592492384

[9] https://self-compassion.org/



Yin Sylvia

B2B SaaS • BizOps • Customer Success • Swim • Pilates • Yoga • Pawrent to 4 doggos 🐶