Published Online:https://doi.org/10.5465/amr.2017.0387

How does CEOs’ trait empathy affect their management of organizational crises? So far, management scholars have highlighted mostly positive effects of CEOs’ empathy in the emotionally charged context of crises. We combine the emerging critical perspective on empathy with research on upper echelons and crisis management to provide a more balanced portrayal of the influence of CEO empathy on crisis management. Specifically, we argue that, on the one hand, highly empathic CEOs will recognize warning signs more quickly, have access to more crisis-related information, gain greater stakeholder appreciation via displays of compassion, and be more committed to healing the organization’s relational system. On the other hand, they also may be more predisposed to false alarms, more biased in processing crisis-related information, overinclined toward apologetic sensegiving, and less committed to repairing the organization’s operational system. Ultimately, we propose that CEOs’ empathy influences their effectiveness in the various tasks of crisis management in an inverted U-shaped pattern. Our theory offers an upper echelons view of organizational crises, particularly by illuminating the roles of empathy and emotions in executives’ crisis management. We also introduce a novel, “too-much-of-a-good-thing” perspective on CEO empathy, providing abundant opportunities for future research.

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