Why Leaders Should Think About Compassion Over Empathy

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When we started researching compassion in leadership, eighty percent of leaders we surveyed believed that compassion is about “being nice or soft,” or “loving everyone.” Compassion, in reality, is defined as understanding what someone is feeling, feeling concern for them in a genuine way, and taking action to help them. It can look fierce or gentle, but always with the intention to be of benefit. This misunderstanding is creating an aversion towards embracing compassion in leadership. In fact, one leader recommended we avoid the word altogether and think about empathy instead. This is a lost opportunity because the reality is that compassion helps leaders be more effective, while empathy, for the most part, does not. It’s crucial that we all learn the difference between compassion and empathy if we want to transform our leadership and organization.

Empathy, which is often defined as feeling what someone else is feeling, can be painful. Studies have shown that when confronted with a stressful situation, people who are empathetic often take on that stress themselves. In fact, Tania Singer, a neuroscientist from the Max Planck Institute, demonstrated that when we witness the pain and suffering of someone else, we activate neural networks which underlie these same feelings in ourselves. When we share the suffering of others using empathy, our negative emotions increase and we’re more likely to experience aversion and emotional burnout (source).

In contrast, studies show that compassion involves a different set of neural networks that actually increases positive feelings, resilience, and the ability to overcome distress in challenging situations. Tania Singer’s studies show that the interoceptive cortex and other areas involved in affiliation and reward are very strongly activated during states of compassion (source). This is because when confronted with the suffering of others, instead of sharing the same feeling, compassion helps us to feel for them. For example, if a colleague is upset after a difficult interaction with a supervisor, instead of recalling our own anger or grief towards the situation or similar ones we have had, we are more able to rest in feeling a genuine sense of concern towards their experience.

Most importantly, compassion has been shown to increase our likelihood of taking action to help, whereas empathy does not necessarily lead to prosocial motivation or behavior (source). When we take on the suffering of others using empathy, we can become preoccupied with our own suffering, withdraw and disengage, or at worst, avoid the situation altogether. Richie Davidson, a neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, conducted a study on helping behavior in the face of an abusive situation (a dictator who is taking advantage of a victim by not paying them fairly). The study showed that those with training in compassion gave almost twice as much to the victim as the control group who had learned how to simply reappraise their feelings (source). In addition, the compassion participants’ brains showed increased activation in circuits for attention, perspective taking, and positive feelings. Additionally, Tania Singer demonstrated in a study that even short-term compassion training leads to increases in prosocial behavior towards strangers (source).

This does not mean that empathy is entirely bad. In fact, many people believe empathy is a precursor for compassion. To understand this, it’s helpful to know the three different kinds of empathy: cognitive empathy, which is understanding what a person thinks and seeing their perspective; emotional empathy, which helps us to feel what someone else is feeling; and empathic concern, or caring for someone’s experience or suffering. Empathic concern lies at the heart of compassion. Compassion can be defined as empathic concern plus the willingness to take action to help. These distinctions in empathy are important because not all of them are always beneficial. For example, psychopaths have extraordinary levels of cognitive empathy. In fact, it is this skill that allows them to understand and manipulate their victims. However, they lack the ability to resonate with the suffering of others, or have emotional empathy and empathic concern. Having empathic concern is the most crucial for moving into a state of compassion and, therefore, helping oneself and others. Training in empathic concern can be a great first step towards cultivating compassion.

For leaders looking to build sustainable, long-standing companies, using compassion is key. Studies have shown that leaders who are perceived to be compassionate have more followers, are perceived to be stronger, and are able to increase organizational collaboration and performance (source). Research on employee tenure and loyalty shows that when leaders are perceived to have high levels of compassion, their teams are 15 percent more likely to stay with the company (source). One of the first steps we can take is to make compassion a core value of the company. Second, we can create processes to make compassion a part of the culture. Finally, we need to invest in compassion training for our teams, especially managers. With practices and tools to lead with compassion, we can better engage our employees and customers. Training in compassion ultimately helps us to help others be successful, which is the essence of great leadership.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.com on November 13, 2018.