Dr. Jacinta Jimenez

BetterUp's Head of Coaching

Posted in: Science of Leadership

Compassion vs. Empathy

← See All Posts

TIME went so far as to call empathy “the hottest trend in leadership.” And rightly so. Approximately 20% of U.S. companies now offer empathy training to their managers. According to a DDI study cited in the same article, the skills that had the strongest correlation with successful leadership were listening and responding. Walter Annenberg Chair in Communication and dean of the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, Ernest J. Wilson III says empathy is “ the ‘attribute-prime’ of successful leaders.”

But there’s a nuanced difference between empathy vs. compassion and for leadership, the approach you choose will determine whether you and your teammates will feel an emotional contagion, like burnout, or not. Empathy and compassion stem from the same desires (to better relate and understand others’ experiences) and both are hugely beneficial to individuals and companies. But the latest research is showing that taking the compassionate route is uniquely aligned with not just great but sustainable leadership.

The difference between compassion and empathy

Compassion and empathy are fundamentally different but are closely related. Compassion is an emotional response to sympathy and creates a desire to help. Empathy is our feeling of awareness towards other people’s emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel

Compassion creates emotional distance from the individual and the situation we’re facing.Click To Tweet

Empathy is deeply rooted in our brains and our bodies — it evokes in us the desire to understand other people’s emotions; it’s so rudimentary, it’s actually instinctual. This type of empathy is what psychologists typically refer to as cognitive empathy. There are many reasons to practice empathy: it’s good for our personal health, and our work relationships. The problem with empathy is the flip side that psychologists refer to as emotional empathy: our yearning to not only understand other people, but to feel their pain, too.

Professor of Psychology at Yale University, Paul Bloom (who authored a book on the topic), writes, “Recent research in neuroscience and psychology (to say nothing of what we can see in our everyday lives) shows that empathy makes us biased, tribal and often cruel.” In fact, numerous studies suggest that empathy — while well-intentioned — isn’t neutral, and it can sometimes hurt more than help our relationships and our ability to lead effectively. For one, empathy is unfeasible in the long-term: when we’re exhausted and burned out, we’re inevitably less able to give to the teammates who need us most. Empathy can also make us unconsciously more sympathetic towards individuals who we relate to more, making us less likely to connect with people whose experiences don’t mirror ours.

So what makes compassion different? Unlike empathy, compassion creates emotional distance from the individual and the situation we’re facing. By practicing compassion, we can become more resilient and improve our overall well-being. Bloom says, “careful reasoning mixed with a more distant compassion […] makes the world a better place.”

It’s no wonder than some of the greatest minds in business today are singing an evolved tune: the tune of compassion. In fact, a recent study from Emory University showed that medical students (whose work environments are particularly stressful and challenging) can benefit greatly from compassion training, helping future doctors “stay compassionate toward their patients while maintaining personal well-being” and limiting their stress levels.

“Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness”

We often “blindly mirror others’ emotions or assume nefarious intention.” Our biases kick in, even when we’re being empathetic.

Fred Kofman shared a seminal piece of advice with the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner: “Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness and compassion without wisdom is folly.” The statement had a profound effect on Weiner, who told an audience at Wisdom 2.0 that it led him to create a personal vision statement around expanding the world’s collective wisdom through compassion. It’s become the North Star for LinkedIn.

Speaking at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, Weiner told the moderator that the natural response most people have when they disagree with someone’s point of view is to “get angry” and “get defensive.” More, we often “blindly mirror their emotions or assume nefarious intention.” Our biases kick in, even when we’re being empathetic.

With compassionate management, a leader can become a “spectator of your owns thoughts and emotions” and go beyond experiencing a somewhat uncontrollable feeling to managing an appropriate response.

The difference between empathetic leadership and compassionate leadership is nuanced and both skills have been shown to have dramatic effects on employee happiness, retention, and overall well-being. But while empathy is “a lynchpin for good leadership, a compassionate work culture, where leaders regularly demonstrate concern for people experiencing difficulties and act upon the concern to help and support is also a key element,” writes Ray Williams in Psychology Today. This is what Jeff Weiner has already figured out — and so many other leaders are trying to cultivate.

How to become a compassionate leader

Emotional leadership can be exhausting, but compassionate leadership doesn’t have to be. Click To Tweet

An empathetic leader is able to establish a connection with her teammates, encourage collaboration, and influence teammates to be more loyal to an organization. But on the flip side, her judgement may be clouded by her own biases and personal experiences — even her ethical judgement can become eroded. That’s where compassion comes in.

In fact, research has shown that through coaching in compassion, leaders can “experience psychophysiological effects that restore the body’s natural healing and growth processes, thus enhancing their sustainability.”

The ultimate goal of compassionate management, according to Weiner, is compromise and shared understanding. Emotional leadership can be exhausting, but compassionate leadership doesn’t have to be.

Original art by Theo Payne.

Ready to learn more about BetterUp Coaching?

Get Started

Trending Right Now

How to Embrace Constructive Conflict Most of us intuitively know that having honest and constructive dialogue can benefit our workplace relationships and organizational outcomes. Yet, few...
A Whole Person Approach to Development Research shows that when we bring our whole selves to work, we’re more creative and perform better*. But in order to develop leaders who are agile, au...