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Introducing the E/A spectrum for leaders

As a former family therapist and now as the CEO of Torch, I see a lot of overlap when it comes to families and businesses – especially in the realm of leadership. To illustrate the connection, let’s turn to the love-structure spectrum. Research has found that families that index high on both axes of this spectrum are the most likely to produce well-rounded children. Similarly, families that index low on both axes produce children who tend to struggle in society.

I’ve found that the same concept holds true for business leaders. But in this case, I prefer to refer to it as an empathy-accountability spectrum (E/A spectrum). In this post, I’ll explain what each axis measures and where, as a leader, you want to end up on this spectrum.


A look at the E/A spectrum

The E/A spectrum provides a way for us to understand how one’s leadership style will impact the organization or people they lead. Let’s take a closer look at each of the axes and what they represent. 

The X Axis: Accountability

Accountability refers to a leader’s ability to provide a clear framework for how the business will function. It’s also an indicator of how present and actively engaged with their employees they are. Do they have structures and systems in place (like a clearly defined performance management system) to regularly provide feedback to employees? Do all the team members – from the high performers to the lower performers – know exactly where they stand? The answers all tie back to a leader’s level of accountability.  

Characteristics of high accountability leaders: 

  • Define objectives and key performance indicators and conduct post-mortem reviews
  • Host regular one-on-ones with direct reports, weekly team stand-ups, and communicate progress to investors or senior leadership on a regular cadence
  • Share their own goals and clearly articulated responsibilities to everyone in the company and strive to live out the values they champion

Characteristics of low accountability leaders: 

  • Lack the planning needed to define objectives and key performance indicators and don’t find value in post-mortem reviews
  • Cancel, avoid, or don’t plan regular one-on-ones with direct reports or team stand ups
  • If they create goals, they don’t share them out to the company, are not good models for living values 

The Y Axis: Empathy

In the workplace, empathy is defined by a leader’s ability to understand and reflect back the feelings of their team and those around them. This can show up in the form of gratitude, interpersonal care, and emotional intelligence. Put another way: is the leader able to induce that “aha, my boss really understands me as a person” feeling that employees want to experience?

Characteristics of high empathy leaders:

  • Go out of their way to have a healthy personal relationship with their employees and colleagues
  • Understand when an employee must take time off for a family matter or personal health
  • Demonstrate gratitude and kindness in their daily actions and provide positive feedback that calls out high performance, even outside the performance review cycle

Characteristics of low empathy leaders:

  • Focus more on their own feelings than understanding those of others
  • Don’t take the time to invest in getting to know their employees and colleagues personally
  • Get frustrated or gruff when employees ask for time off related to family or personal health

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The impact of the E/A spectrum on leaders

Whether you index high or low in accountability and empathy tells us a lot about the type of leadership you provide to your team or organization. Most leaders are either high in accountability or empathy and low in the opposite, placing them in the top left or bottom right quadrant – although there are also some who may fall at the low end of both axes.

Ultimately, the goal is for all leaders to end up in the upper right quadrant of the E/A spectrum. In other words, to be high empathy and high accountability.

Why? Companies with high empathy and accountability leaders create a culture that prioritizes human relationships and experiences without sacrificing corporate success. This kind of leadership results in low turnover, high productivity, and confidence in a shared vision. 

By understanding where you currently sit on the E/A spectrum, you can find ways to improve yourself as a leader and better serve your people and organization. To get more information about the E/A spectrum for leadership and to learn how to build high empathy, high accountability leaders, download our ebook