Don’t Stop at Empathy. Your Employees Need Compassion

Compassion is more empowering than empathy, according to research. Mindful leadership expert Rasmus Hougaard breaks down how excessive empathy can contribute to burnout, and explains five key ways to support your teams by leading with compassion.

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As the pandemic drags on, data around the world shows that burnout is deepening, resignations are climbing, and employer trust has plummeted. Leaders are looking hard for ways to stabilize their organizations and retain their employees. Whether by deliberate choice or happy accident, many leaders have discovered the positive impact of showing more vulnerability and empathy with employees around the challenges we’ve all struggled with. In fact, many are pointing to “empathy” as the top leadership trait needed at this time of tumult and uncertainty. To this, we say “yes, and…”: Yes, empathy is good, but it does not go far enough. Leaders need to pair empathy with action. When they do, they are showing compassion. 

As humans, we are biased for empathy. Empathy is the natural human instinct of recognizing another’s emotions and using this awareness as a catalyst for forging bonds. As a leader, it’s important to empathize with your people, to understand their perspective, and to be able to put yourselves in their shoes.

But, in the workplace, that only gets you so far. Leading with empathy alone can distort judgment and halt progress, and when practiced without any associated action, it can lead to empathetic burnout. There are many symptoms of empathetic burnout, but some of the more obvious warning signs include feeling physically and psychologically exhausted, the inability to stop worrying about the stressors affecting your team members, or the experience of a decreased sense of personal and professional accomplishment. However, when you pair empathy with action, the result is compassion. Compassionate leaders can get on the same level as their people, and then ask, now what? They can acknowledge a problem, and then use compassion to help define the next best steps.

The Science Behind Leading With Empathy vs. Compassion

Another way to understand the difference between the two is that empathy is an emotion, while 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 good, altruistic response. But compassion is different. Compassion is to take a step back from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to support the person who is suffering.

Tania Singer, a celebrated neuroscientist and the head of the Social Neuroscience Lab of the Max Planck Society in Berlin, Germany, conducted a study that illustrates this distinction perfectly. She performed a series of brain scans on Matthieu Ricard, a well-known Buddhist monk. For the study, Ricard was strapped into an fMRI machine and asked to imagine the suffering of orphaned children. In previous tests done by Singer, this type of thinking activated the same brain areas as feeling actual physical pain. But with Ricard, as Singer described it, “I saw networks activating that are associated with reward, like having a pleasant feeling.” Singer was confounded. “What is he doing?” she wondered. “Is he thinking about lunch?” 

When Singer asked Ricard about the discrepancy, he said, “You didn’t ask me to suffer with these children. You asked me to meditate in a compassionate state while imagining these children.” In that moment, Singer had discovered an important distinction and relationship between empathy and compassion. First, she had discovered that the two experiences are distinct and operate through different neural networks. But she had also discovered an important relationship between them. “When you see suffering, you want to have a natural, empathetic response. This is how you know someone needs help,” she told us. “But then the important thing is that you transition to compassion. Compassion is rooted in our care and affiliation system. Evolutionarily, this is a separate system. It is a system that promotes warmth, care, altruism, and helping.”

The research shows that as leaders, it’s important to connect with others through empathy, but for best results, we want to lead with compassion. Making this distinction is not just an issue of semantics: it is a critical distinction needed to secure your own well-being and the success of the people and organization you lead.

Compassion Neutralizes the Risk of Burnout for All

In Potential Project’s The Human Leader study, a bi-annual study of 5,000 companies across 100 countries, we measured how leaders scored on the empathy versus compassion scale and then correlated that with both the leaders’ and employees’ experiences at work. 

The study showed that leaders who rate themselves high on compassion report 63% lower burnout, 66% lower stress, and a staggering 200% lower intent to quit their organization. Highly compassionate leaders feel more confidence in their ability to lead others and are less likely to experience personal distress or be overwhelmed by negative emotions. More specifically, the data shows that leaders with an empathy preference have a 12% increased risk of burnout on average compared to their more compassionate counterparts. To put this into perspective, a 12% increase in risk for burnout translates directly into an 11% increase in mortality risk for leaders.

The picture is similarly positive for employees being led by compassionate leaders. They are 25% more engaged in their jobs and 20% more committed to the organization. Not surprisingly, they too have an 11% lower risk of burnout.

How to Lead with Compassion

Today, when most people are reflecting on their work futures, and the role that work plays in their lives, this reframing from empathy to compassion is paramount, not just for personal well-being, but also for employee well-being, retention, and morale. After two years of prolonged stress and uncertainty, we’re all weary and looking to our leaders to show us the way. Fortunately, compassion can be trained and developed. There are simple practices you can incorporate into your everyday life to cultivate a habit of compassion, in your workplace and beyond:

  • Start with self-compassion first. You can’t develop a compassionate practice with others if you can’t first do it for yourself. Let go of harsh self-criticism and cut yourself some slack when patience is due. Get into the habit of self-compassionate practices like getting enough sleep, taking adequate breaks, and making time for things that fill you up.
  • Establish a regular routine of mindfulness. Mindfulness enables compassion and makes people more self-aware. A greater sense of self-awareness helps to make leaders more intentional about their decision-making and more present in their interpersonal interactions. 
  • Consider how you can be of benefit to others. Before you start a meeting or important conversation with a colleague, check your intention. Ask yourself, how can I be of best service to this person today? Reflecting on this intention to serve before you meet with other people will help to create a more human interaction, focused on growth and development.
  • Give more than you take. It’s hard not to think of ourselves most of the time; to think of our responsibilities, our commitments, and our challenges. But sometimes we need to get our minds off ourselves. We need to consciously decide to think of others and make a deliberate decision to give more than we take. This can be as simple as being present and giving your time to focus on others. Plus, when we know we’re helping others in a selfless way, it can help to re-energize us and reconnect us to our organizational purpose.
  • Help others to see what they need to be happy. Regardless of how good it feels to get a pay bump or buy a new car, research tells us that external events and experiences do not create true happiness. These things create pleasure, not happiness. We all want to feel successful and enjoy the pleasure that it brings, but we need to be careful we don’t mistake it for happiness. True happiness, in contrast, is an experience of fulfillment and lasting well-being. Happiness comes through our deeper humanistic experiences like doing purposeful work, caring for others, being generous, and making authentic connections. It’s the long-term state of experiencing a meaningful, purposeful, and positive life. When we model the pursuit of true happiness for our teams, we can help create a culture where others place more focus on real human connections which creates more benefit and the potential for more genuine happiness for everyone.

Compassionate leadership positively impacts organizational commitment, job performance, engagement, and burnout. When we bring more of our humanity to our leadership and approach difficult situations with compassion, we help to encourage genuine human interactions, lifting not just the business, but our relationships and our people, too.

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.


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6 Ways to Build a Culture of Compassion 

Scott Shute, the former head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, shares a few simple gestures that can help foster compassion in our workplaces, families, and communities. Read More 

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