Effective leaders move beyond empathy toward compassion. (2023)


Over the past two years, leaders have carried a heavy emotional load: helping teams recover from the pain and loss of the pandemic, helping their employees' deteriorating mental health, and being sensitive to people's fears. The empathy required for this is important for good leadership, but too much empathy can overwhelm you and lead to burnout and poor decisions. This can be avoided by moving from empathy to the uplifting experience of compassion. "Sympathy", "empathy" and "compassion" are often used interchangeably, but while sympathy and empathy are emotions felt by and with other people, compassion goes beyond mere emotion and includes an active intention to help others. . The authors offer six strategies for leading with compassion: elevating yourself mentally and emotionally; Ask "What do you need?"; remember the power of inaction; train the person instead of doing something for him; practice self-care.

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For nearly two years, leaders have taken on the role of chief advisers, helping teams recover from the grief and loss of the pandemic, encouraging their employees' deteriorating mental health, being sensitive to people's fears, often sharing publicly their own vulnerabilities. In short, they carried a great emotional charge.

Of course, this kind of empathy is important for good leadership. But too much can be a problem and overwhelm you. So when we tell leaders that they really don't need to take on the struggles of the people they lead, it takes a huge weight off their shoulders.

Instead of carrying this burden of empathy, you can learn to experience heightened compassion. This is a big shift in how leaders interact with their teams, one that benefits all parties. It starts with understanding the difference between empathy and compassion.

(Video) Brené Brown: The secret to having compassion

Empathy and Compassion: What's the Difference?

Let's start with some definitions. The words "empathy" and "compassion", as well as "sympathy", are sometimes used interchangeably. They all represent positive and altruistic qualities, but they don't refer to exactly the same experience. It is helpful to consider the two distinct qualities of compassion: understanding what the other is feeling and a willingness to act to alleviate the other's suffering. The following image visually distinguishes compassion from the similar experiences of empathy, sympathy, and pity.

Effective leaders move beyond empathy toward compassion. (1)

Below left we have pen. When we experience compassion, we have little willingness to act and little understanding of others' experiences. We just feel sorry for you. If we move the graph to the right, we experience sympathy. There is a slight increase in our willingness to help and our understanding of others. We feelforthe other person.

If we go one level higher, we arrive at empathy. With empathy, we have a close and visceral understanding of the other person's experience. We feelswindlerPerson. We literally take the other person's emotions and make them our own. While that's noble, it doesn't necessarily help the other person, except perhaps to make them feel less alone in their experience.

Finally, in the upper right corner, we have a good understanding of what the other person is experiencing.ja will to act. Our understanding of the other person's experience is greater than with empathy because we rely on our emotional awareness and rational understanding. Compassion arises when we step back from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to support the suffering person. In this way, compassion is an intention as opposed to an emotion.

(Video) The Empathy Edge: Why Compassion Fuels Leadership Success and How to Build Your Empathy Muscle

Why is it important?

Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, puts it this way: “If I led with empathy, I would never be able to make a single decision. Why? Because with empathy, I mirror the emotions of others, making it impossible to consider the greater good.

Paul is right. Despite its many benefits, empathy can be a poor guide for leaders.

Empathy often helps us do the right thing, but sometimes it motivates us to do the wrong thing. Research by Paul Bloom, Professor of Cognitive Science and Psychology at Yale University and author ofagainst empathy, found that empathy can distort our judgment. In their study, two groups of people listened to a recording of a terminally ill child describing his pain. One group was asked to identify and empathize with the child. The other group was instructed to listen objectively and not get emotionally involved. After listening to the recording, each person was asked if they could place the child on a doctor-managed priority treatment list. In the emotional group, three-quarters of participants chose to list them against the advice of medical professionals, which could put the sickest people at risk. In the target group, only a third of the participants made the same recommendation.

As a leader, empathy can cloud our judgment, foster prejudice, and make us less effective at making informed decisions. However, it should not be avoided completely. A leader without empathy is like an engine without a spark plug: it just won't start. Empathy is essential for connection, and then we can harness the spark to lead with compassion.

And herein lies the challenge for most leaders: we tend to get stuck in our empathy, which prevents us from moving on to compassion.

Avoid the empathy trapand lead with compassion

Overcoming empathic abduction is a crucial skill for any leader. As you master this skill, you must remember that turning away from empathy does not make you any less human or less kind. Instead, it makes you better able to support people through tough times. Here are six key strategies for using empathy as a catalyst for leading with more compassion.

(Video) Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care

Take a mental and emotional step.

To avoid engaging in empathic abduction when you are with someone who is suffering, try to take a mental and emotional step. Step out of the emotional space to gain a clearer perspective on the situation and the person. Only with that perspective can you help. By creating this emotional distance, you may feel like you're not being nice. But remember, don't distance yourself from the person. Instead, step away from the problem so you can help solve it.

Ask what they need.

When you ask the simple question, "What do you need?" You've initiated a solution to the problem by giving the person a chance to think about what might be needed. This will give you better information on how you can help. And for the person who is hurting, the first step that can help is to feel heard and seen.

Remember the power of inaction.

Leaders are usually good at getting things done. But when it comes to people facing challenges, it's important to remember that in many cases, people don't need your solutions; They need your ear and your loving presence. Many problems just need to be heard and acknowledged. In this way, "doing nothing" can be the most powerful way to help.

Train the person to find their own solution.

Leadership is not about solving people's problems. It is about growing and developing people so that they become capable of solving their own problems. Avoid robbing people of this life-learning opportunity by solving their problems directly. Instead, train and guide them. Show them a way to find their own answers.

Practice self-care.

Show self-compassion by practicing authentic self-care. Dealing with your own feelings comes at the cost of dealing better with others. Often referred to as emotional labor, the task of absorbing, reflecting, and redirecting other people's feelings can be overwhelming. So as leaders, we need to practice self-care: taking breaks, sleeping and eating well, nurturing meaningful relationships, and practicing mindfulness. We need to find ways to stay resilient, grounded, and in tune with ourselves. When we show ourselves with these qualities in the workplace, people can lean on us and find solace and solace in our well-being.

This article is adapted fromCompassionate Leadership: How to Do Difficult Things Humanely por Rasmus Hougaard e Jacqueline Carter (Harvard Business Review Press 2022).

(Video) Brené Brown on Empathy


What is empathy and compassion in leadership? ›

Leaders oriented towards compassion tend to focus on the greater good rather than the wellbeing of one individual. This means that compassionate leaders generally try to unite people and groups. Empathy, on the other hand, can make us prone to divisiveness.

Why is empathy and compassion important in leadership? ›

Empathetic leaders can see the world from their employees' perspectives and make decisions that consider their needs and feelings. This type of leadership is vital because it can help build trust, foster communication, and motivate employees.

Why is compassion important as a leader? ›

Compassion in leadership creates stronger connections between people. It improves collaboration, raises levels of trust, and enhances loyalty. In addition, studies find that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent.

How do leaders lead with compassion? ›

Compassionate Leadership is the practice of using your head and heart to inspire and influence people so they can, in turn, inspire and influence others. Compassionate Leaders use their influence to positively impact themselves, others, and the planet.

What are examples of empathy and compassion? ›

While these words are related, they actually mean very different things and the behaviours we mirror of them are different too.
  • SYMPATHY. “It's so sad that you just lost your best friend.” ...
  • EMPATHY. “I know you loved your friend deeply… ...
  • COMPASSION. “I can sense that you are in a lot of pain.

How do you lead a team with empathy and kindness? ›

Other examples of demonstrating empathetic leadership, or leading with kindness include:
  1. Being an advocate for diversity of thought.
  2. Demonstrating a level of curiosity in your team interactions.
  3. Being able to create a safe space while also holding space for your team members.
  4. Understanding team dynamics.
Jul 3, 2022

What are 3 examples of compassion? ›

Giving up a seat to a pregnant woman, being polite to retail workers, helping your friend move, taking a second to listen at work — compassion takes many forms.

What are the three pillars of compassionate leadership? ›

3 Pillars of Compassionate Leadership
  • Cognitive Understanding. In order to lead, you need to conceptually understand the problems, situations and decisions your peers and employees are facing. ...
  • Affective (Emotional) Understanding. Yet, facts alone aren't enough. ...
  • Motivational Connection.

How do you move with compassion? ›

In order for us to be moved with compassion, we must see people through the eyes of compassion, with empathy that allows us to truly see their suffering, which moves us to reach out with a helping hand to relieve their suffering.

What are the characteristics of a good leader compassion? ›

4 key traits of a compassionate leader
  • They hold self-awareness and self-compassion. ...
  • They are able to put themselves in the shoes of others. ...
  • They see themselves as the conductor of an orchestra. ...
  • They help employees along the way.
May 20, 2020

Why is compassion important for success? ›

Simply put, because it works. Self-compassion gives you greater confidence, makes you more resilient, and fosters authentic growth in your abilities.

What is an example of compassionate leader? ›

Examples of compassionate leadership include taking time to check in with your team members individually to make sure they're doing okay personally as well as professionally.

What are the four key elements of compassionate leadership? ›

Collective Leadership
  • Everyone has leadership responsibility.
  • Shared leadership in teams.
  • Interdependent leadership across boundaries.
  • Consistent leadership styles across the organisation.

How would you describe an empathetic leader? ›

Empathetic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on identifying with others and understanding their point of view. Empathetic leaders take a genuine interest in the people around them – what makes them tick, what inspires them and the way they feel.

What are good examples of empathy in the workplace? ›

For example, you likely smile and take the trouble to remember people's names: that's empathy in action. Giving people your full attention in meetings, being curious about their lives and interests, and offering constructive feedback are all empathic behaviors, too.

What is compassion in simple words? ›

Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related.

What is the golden rule of compassion? ›

The golden rule, a commonality throughout religion and guiding force for compassion, "asks you to look into your own heart, discover what gives you pain, and then refuse under any circumstance whatsoever to inflict that pain on anyone else." It's tricky, because each situation and individual must be evaluated ...

What is the core value of compassion? ›

Appreciating and being sensitive to the difficulty of others and what they may be experiencing through our expressions of kindness, caring and helpfulness, which creates greater trust and learning for all involved.

What is the key to compassion? ›

Following consolidation of existing definitions, we propose that compassion consists of five elements: recognizing suffering, understanding the universality of human suffering, feeling for the person suffering, tolerating uncomfortable feelings, and motivation to act/acting to alleviate suffering.

What are the two key components of compassion? ›

They concluded that compassion entails five elements that apply to the self or others: 1) recognising suffering, 2) understanding the universality of suffering in human experience, 3) feeling for the person suffering and emotionally connecting with their distress, 4) tolerating any uncomfortable feelings aroused (e.g., ...

What are the 3 C's of effective leadership? ›

My training and experiences in the Army provided valuable insights into the principles and guidance into the makings of a true leader, none more impressive than the three Cs: competence, commitment and character. It may seem self-evident, but leaders must be competent — that's a non-negotiable.

What are the 3 qualities of a responsible leader? ›

The 3 qualities that make a human leader

To succeed in today's business environment, leaders need to be authentic, empathetic and adaptable.

What does it mean to be moved with compassion? ›

To have compassion means to empathize with someone who is suffering and to feel compelled to reduce the suffering. It's a fuller, truer definition than feelings alone, and it's a very biblical understanding.

What is the difference between empathy and compassion? ›

Empathy is feeling another person's pain, whereas compassion is taking action to relieve the suffering of others. Learn more about the difference between compassion vs. empathy and how to exhibit both in your everyday life.

What is empathy and compassion? ›

Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.

What are four qualities of an effective leader? ›

Effective leaders are competent, skilled, secure, and considerate. These leaders find time for everyone; they are genuine and authentic in their communications and actions.

How would you define compassion and empathy? ›

While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.

What is empathetic leadership style? ›

Empathic leadership is a style of leadership that focuses on connecting with your employees and understanding their points of view. It's the best leadership style to help you recognise your team's thoughts, feelings and emotions.

What are three ways we can show compassion? ›

There are a number of different steps you can take to show compassion to others.
  • Speak with kindness.
  • Apologize when you've made a mistake.
  • Listen carefully and without judgment.
  • Encourage other people.
  • Offer to help someone with a task.
  • Be happy for someone else's success.
  • Accept people for who they are.
Nov 1, 2021

Why is it important to show compassion to others? ›

Compassion helps us connect with others, mend relationships, and move forward while fostering emotional intelligence and well-being. Compassion takes empathy one step further because it harbors a desire for all people to be free from suffering, and it's imbued with a desire to help.

What are the 3 skills of empathy? ›

The three key skills in this realm of increasing empathy and emotional intelligence are building trust, actively listening, and having compassion.


1. How You Treat People Is Who You Are! (Kindness Motivational Video)
(Fearless Soul)
2. The power of empathy: Helen Riess at TEDxMiddlebury
(TEDx Talks)
3. We’re experiencing an empathy shortage, but we can fix it together | Jamil Zaki | TEDxMarin
(TEDx Talks)
4. Simon Sinek - Understanding Empathy
(Justin McClung)
5. Why good leaders make you feel safe | Simon Sinek
6. Face of Defense Army Leader Focuses on Empathy, Compassion
(Military News11)


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