Four Reasons Why Compassion Is Better For Humanity Than Empathy
This article was originally published in Forbes.
In times of crisis and social unrest, compassionate leadership can unify us as human beings, like a glue that binds us together in times of unrest. Without it, we become lonely individuals, facing challenges alone. For ten years at Potential Project, we have done research in the field of compassionate leadership and have helped thousands of executives to become more compassionate. In this work, we have faced a big challenge: Leaders mistake empathy for compassion.
The dark side of empathy
Empathy is an important, foundational emotion for human connection. It is the spark that can ignite compassion. But on its own, without compassion, empathy is a danger for leaders. As controversial as this may sound, the reasoning is simple: Empathy is the brain’s wired tendency to identify with those who are close to us – close in proximity, close in familiarity, or close in kinship. And when we empathize with those close to us, those who are not close or are different seem threatening. When unchecked, empathy can create more division than unity.
Empathy and compassion are very different. They are represented in different areas of the brain. With empathy, we join the suffering of others who suffer, but stop short of actually helping. With compassion, we take a step away from the emotion of empathy and ask ourselves ‘how can we help?’. For leaders, recognizing the differences between empathy and compassion is critical for inspiring and managing others effectively. Remember these four main points in responding to your people with compassion instead of empathy.
1. Empathy is impulsive. Compassion is deliberate.
Empathy is considered the reflexive and automatic part of our psychology which originates in the emotion centers of the brain. Empathetic feelings, thoughts, and decisions are generated mostly on an unconscious level, which means we are less aware and less intentional about those decisions.
Compassion is considered the reflective and deliberate part of our psychology which originates in the cognitive centers of the brain. Compassionate feelings, thoughts, and decisions pass through filters of consciousness, which means we can deliberate, reflect and improve on the decisions.
2. Empathy is divisive. Compassion is unifying.
Empathy is the tendency to join in others’ suffering, particularly those who are close to us. But empathy is limited. When it comes to helping “outsiders” who are suffering, our brains perceive it as hard work and reject the effort. While our instinct is to support and protect our ingroup, we can perceive outsiders as part of an outgroup and a threat to our social identity. A recent study found that empathy triggered from social connection makes it more likely that we will dehumanize individuals seen as belonging to an outgroup. In its extreme, empathy can fuel aversion to those who are different from us.
Compassion is the joining in others’ suffering, irrespective of their social or personal identity. It is the perspective that in any person’s suffering there is a common humanity – the recognition that no matter a person’s cultural background, sexual orientation or age, you are like the other person in that moment. Compassionate leaders work to lift themselves above their unconscious biases to see all people in the organization with similar worth. In doing so, leaders encourage attitudes of virtue and altruism throughout the organization, for all people.
3. Empathy is inert. Compassion is active.
Though empathy can feel good at first, it can also make you feel stuck. Because you are joining in other’s suffering but not taking any action to resolve or remedy the issue, your empathy can devolve into rumination on the problem. People prone to empathic responding are also more likely to experience depressive symptoms.
Compassion, on the other hand, is more constructive. It starts with empathy and then turns outward, with an intent to help. With compassion, leaders make the conscious choice to turn emotion into action. And in doing so, compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent, able to make decisions and get things done. And, compassion in an organization triggers other positive outcomes: improved collaboration, trust and team loyalty.
4. Empathy is draining. Compassion is regenerative.
Feeling for another person’s suffering is depleting over time. When empathy is triggered in the face of another person’s struggles, it can bring a relentless bombardment of negative emotions and experiences that, over time, can sap our cognitive resources and take a toll on our mental well-being.
Because compassion is intentional and solutions-focused – centered on how to help another person while actively considering the various trade-offs – it is restorative versus draining. And, when we deliver that help, we get the added bonus of a dopamine hit. Helping feels good, and we are motivated to do it again in the future.
Compassion can be developed: Results from 15,000 leaders
For leaders, compassion is clearly the better choice over empathy. And, because compassion is not an instinctive, purely emotional response, it can be trained and developed, just like any other leadership skill. In our client work, we have witnessed and supported great examples of compassionate leadership at global organizations like IKEA, Unilever, Cisco, and Marriott.
In addition to our client work, we have gathered data on compassion from 15,000 leaders around the world, the largest global sample to date on compassionate leadership. The data include the self-reported attitudes and internal states of leaders from nearly 100 countries and more than 5,000 companies.
One of the most important revelations in the data is that having a regular routine of mindfulness – or some other contemplative practice – is one of the best paths for increasing compassion. Mindfulness generally makes people more self-aware. With greater self-awareness, leaders are more intentional about how they approach an issue and more thoughtful about how they respond to others. Mindfulness supports the deliberate and constructive decision-making that distinguishes compassion from empathy.
If you think you might have room for more compassion in your leadership, here are a few things you can do:
- Have more self-compassion: Having genuine compassion for others starts with having compassion for yourself. If you’re overloaded and out of balance, it’s impossible to help others find their balance. Self-compassion includes getting quality sleep and taking breaks during the day. For many leaders, self-compassion means letting go of obsessive self-criticism. Stop criticizing yourself for what you could have done differently or better. instead, cultivate self-talk that is positive. Then reframe setbacks as a learning experience. What will you do differently in the future?
- Check your intention: Make a habit of checking your intention before you meet others. Put yourself in their shoes. With their reality in mind, ask yourself: How can I best be of benefit to this person or these people?
- Adopt a daily compassion practice: Compassion is a trainable skill. Our brains have an incredible level of neuroplasticity, which means that the mental states you develop can get stronger and more prominent. Here is an app that can help you rewire your mind for more compassion in your leadership.
As you chart this new leadership territory over the coming months, remember – be deliberate, be unifying, be active, and be regenerative. In a world full of unrest and divisiveness, learning, choosing and actively practicing compassion is a way forward, an active declaration of what you stand for and a visible testament to the world you want to live in.