Leaders Connect With Empathy, But Lead With Compassion

BL00 - Leaders Connect-Max-Quality

By Jacqueline Carter & Rasmus Hougaard, guest contributors

For decades, leaders have been taught the importance of empathy. Its importance cannot be overstated, especially in today’s world of work. Empathy is the ability to recognize and share others’ feelings and perspectives. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes. As a leader, this ability is obviously important. You can lead others more effectively if you can understand what they might be experiencing. Research also shows that empathy increases life satisfaction, emotional intelligence, and self-esteem. People with high empathy have larger and more fulfilling social networks, are more social themselves, volunteer more readily, donate more to charity, and are more likely to help others in need.1 

Yes, empathy is good. But it has limitations. 

Recent research into the neurology and psychology of empathy provides a more nuanced picture, at least from a leadership perspective. Empathy has some pitfalls that every leader should understand. 

In our own experience, when helping leaders understand and experience the difference between empathy and compassion, the general reaction is a deep sigh of relief. Realizing that as a leader you don’t have to take on the difficulties of the people you lead is a huge burden lifted off your shoulders. Instead of carrying that burden of empathy, you can learn to experience the uplifted experience of compassion. This is a massive shift in how you engage with the people you lead, and both you and your people will benefit greatly. 

To understand the place of both empathy and compassion in the workplace, it’s important to understand the critical distinctions between the two. The two terms differ in that empathy is an emotion and compassion is an intention. Empathy is when we see someone suffer, take on the suffering they experience, and suffer together with them. This is a very human and noble thing to do. However, it does not necessarily help the other person, except for possibly feeling less alone in experiencing the difficulty.

But compassion is different. Compassion is to take a step away from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to support the person who is suffering. In this way, compassion is an intention. As Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn, said, “Empathy is to see someone suffering under the weight of a great burden and respond by putting the same burden on yourself. Compassion is the act of alleviating the person from the burden.”

Wise Leaders Choose Compassion

As humans we are biased for empathy. It is deeply ingrained in our neural networks. Empathy kicks in by means of emotional contagion, a function of our brain’s neural network that mirrors the emotional states we recognize in others.2 When this happens, our brain mirrors the emotional state of the person we see, making us take on his or her emotions. This evolutionary emotional contagion has enabled us to form emotional bonds with others and collectively form tribes that stand together in good and bad times. Without them, families, communities, and, most likely, companies wouldn’t exist. For leaders, however, with responsibility for many people’s wellbeing, empathy can be a problem. The following are select benefits of compassion and potential dangers of empathy in leadership. 

Compassion Makes You Feel Empowered 

The data collected for our recently published book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, showed that leaders who develop and exhibit compassion over empathy in their leadership are less likely to experience personal distress or be overwhelmed by negative emotions. More specifically, leaders with an empathy preference showed a 12% increased risk of burnout on average compared to their more compassionate counterparts.

Another recent study found that compassion leads to a sense of empowerment and a predominantly positive state of mind–even in the face of other peoples’ challenges. Why? Because compassion gives us the confidence that we can help them, rather than being caught up in their distress. In this light, it is not surprising that our data showed that leaders oriented towards compassion rather than empathy experience a 30% greater level of subjective well-being and happiness in their life in general. Also, due to their compassionate orientation, they feel a 14% greater confidence in their leadership ability–because they feel capable of making a difference. 

Compassion Makes You Unite People 

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. At its core, empathy represents our brains’ evolutionary tendency to “feel with” those closest to us–those who are in our family, kin, or tribe. And when we empathize with those closest to us, those that are not close, or those that are different, seem threatening. 

Because of this, studies have found that empathy can also lead to a lack of diversity and inclusion. As mentioned, humans empathize more easily with people similar to themselves. Even other animals that resemble humans receive more empathy. Just think of a baby seal with its big round eyes, as opposed to a chicken. Which would you more readily kill and eat? Similarly, we easily empathize with a neighbor whose car is stolen and less easily with the homeless person on the street. Much in the same way, we unconsciously empathize with colleagues who are similar to us. We tend to offer them better assignments and better positions, all unknowingly. This can create an organization that suffers from a lack of diverse perspectives, limiting problem-solving, innovation, and creativity. 

Our data showed that leaders who are orientated towards compassion over empathy are better for the team. Our assessment measured how leaders scored on the empathy versus compassion scale and then correlated that with how employees rated their leaders and their own experience of work. The followers whose leaders show a compassion preference are 25% more engaged in their jobs. They are also 20% more committed to the organization and have an 11% lower risk of burnout.

Empathy Can Lead to Immoral and Unethical Decisions

Even with its many benefits, empathy can be a poor moral guide. Empathy often helps us do what’s right, but it also sometimes motivates us to do what’s wrong. Research by Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University and author of Against Empathy, discovered that empathy can distort our judgment. In his study, two groups of people listened to the recording of a terminally ill boy describing his pain. One group was asked to identify with, and feel for, the boy. The other group was instructed to listen objectively and not engage emotionally. After listening to the recording, each person was asked whether they would move the boy up a prioritized treatment list constructed and managed by medical doctors. In the emotional group, three-quarters of participants decided to move him up the list against the opinion of medical professionals, potentially putting sicker individuals at risk. In the objective group, only one-third of the participants made the same recommendation. This study demonstrates how empathy triggers our impulses, resulting in poor judgment that could harm many people for the benefit of one person. As leaders, empathy may cloud our moral judgment. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions. 

With all these challenges of empathy in leadership, one may think it should be completely avoided. That, however, is far from the case. A leader without empathy is like an engine without a spark plug. You must connect with empathy and lead with compassion.

Empathy is Needed – But Just for a Moment

Both empathy and compassion are fundamentally important in leadership, but although compassion will support your leadership all the time, empathy should only be used as a springboard to catalyze compassion. And therein lies the challenge for most leaders: we tend to get stuck in an empathy trap and not move into compassion. 

“I have a bias for empathizing with human beings,” Mads Nipper–CEO of Orsted, the world's most sustainable energy company–explained to us. “I think that has enabled me to forge good and trusting relationships throughout my career. But the downside is that I sometimes find it hard to make difficult decisions that impact others. I have to force myself to get out of the connection of empathy and actually do what needs to be done to serve the bigger purpose of our company.” 

Practice: Experience the Difference Between Empathy and Compassion 

It is good to have a conceptual understanding of the difference between empathy and compassion, but to truly comprehend the difference, it is important to experience it. The following is a simple exercise to help you experience the difference first-hand. 

  1. First of all, close your eyes and sit comfortably. Take a few moments of just relaxing your body and mind. Let go of anything you have just read. 
  2. Now bring to mind a person who you really care about and who has, in recent times, experienced significant suffering either emotionally or physically. 
  3. Imagine this person sitting right in front of you. 
  4. Try to notice how the suffering they have experienced or are experiencing is showing up in their facial expressions and maybe even body language. Sit and take it in for a few minutes. 
  5. If by now you are feeling a slight or strong sense of heaviness or sadness, this is the experience of empathy. This is good. It means you care. 
  6. But to really help the person, you need compassion. To get to this, move to the next step.
  7. Imagine you are taking a few mental steps away from the person, to get some perspective. And then ask yourself, “How might I be able to help this person?” What small or big thing can you do to make them feel a little better? Can you give them a call, send a text, pay a visit, or send a gift? 
  8. Make a strong commitment to yourself to do at least one thing to help the person. Sit with this commitment for a few moments. Recognize that you are in a position, even in a small way, to make a difference for this person and help them with their challenges. 
  9. How do you feel now? 
  10. If you feel slightly lighter than earlier, this is the experience of compassion: the intention to do something to help another in need and the understanding that you have the power to make a positive difference. 

Adapted from: Compassionate Leadership: How to do Hard Things in Human Way by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Published by Harvard Business Review Press, January 18, 2022.

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and CEO of Potential Project, a global leadership, organizational development and research firm serving Microsoft, Accenture, Cisco and hundreds of other organizations. He is co-author, with Jacqueline Carter, of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way and The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results.

Jacqueline Carter is a senior partner and the North American Director of Potential Project. She is the co-author, with Rasmus Hougaard, of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way and The Mind of the Leader – How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results.

  1. D. Goleman, R. E. Boyatzis, A. McKee, Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2013) 
  2. H. G. Engen and T. Singer, “Empathy circuits,” Current opinion in neurobiology 23 (2013): 275-82. 
  3. P. Bloom, “Empathy and Its Discontents,” Trends in cognitive sciences 21 (2017): 24-31. 

1 comment

Ron Renz

For me, this discussion contributed to a deeper understanding of the relationship between empathy and compassion. The "open question" that I continue to contemplate is "what is empathy?" 

I agree with the understanding of empathy as an emotional resonance, a "mirroring." I disagree with the statement, "Empathy is when we see someone suffer, take on the suffering they experience, and suffer together with them." In my experience empathy does not require or ask us to take on the suffering of others, i.e. help them "shoulder the load" of their experience. Empathy is providing presence and space for someone that contributes to their understanding of their emotions in relation to their experience. It's "wondering" along with them with curiosity. Together we are seeking greater understanding. 

Once one's needs for empathy and connection are met, one may feel empowered to make choices about their actions and "next steps" with greater discernment, confidence, and less emotional reactivity. In my experience this view of empathy has helped me feel less burdened and responsible for others. I experience a greater capacity for clarity in taking compassionate action to reduce others' suffering within the context of organizational needs.

Read more
Read less

Leave a comment