Empathy is Essential. Compassion is a Superpower

Leading Others

5th April 2022

We’ve all gained a little more understanding of the way in which small acts of kindness can go a long way. At work this rings especially true, but with so much change and disturbing news that is outside the office putting pressure on people and upheaving wellbeing, it remains difficult to strike the balance between leading and feeling. Or should there be a distinction at all?

Allowing for feelings, unique needs, personal circumstances, and the basic recognition that the contracted 9-5 is only one aspect of your employees’ lives, is the foundation of forward-thinking companies today. A 2021 Business Solver survey noted that 90 percent of Gen Z employees– our future- are more likely to stay with an empathetic employer.

It is becoming increasingly clear that empathy, at all levels of an organisation, is essential to retaining talent. People are increasingly unlikely to tolerate being treated like a hire to control, not a human to connect with.

But if that’s the minimum requirement for the future world of work, what differentiates stand-out employee experiences and great leaders people want to follow? In this blog we explore how being compassionate is different to being empathetic, and why it is such an asset- when directed towards both others and yourself.

Honouring the ‘whole person’ at work

In the spring and summer of 2020, Scott Behson, author of the best-selling book The Whole-Person Workplace, conducted interviews with business owners, chief executives and HR officers. He kept hearing the same sentiment: “This idea that work is work, and your life should be separate from it, was really kind of a fiction, right?”.

This is the unprecedented shift in attitude that’s taken place over the last two years. The pandemic exploded the importance of honouring the whole person, achieving the equivalent of dramatically tearing down the fourth wall. Our eyes were fully opened to each others’ lives- and the fact our jobs aren’t necessarily the centre of them.

We shouldn’t have to make choices between our authenticity and our contribution to the workplace- Pamela Fuller

In his book The 8th Habit,  Stephen R. Covey explored the “Whole Person Paradigm” in stark contrast to the industrial age the “Thing Paradigm” which saw workers as animated tools to be yielded, instead of layered and unique individuals to be nurtured. We left that attitude behind a while ago, but the pandemic  changed the game again.

Winning ‘the hearts and minds’ of people as a workplace strategy is modern, but as a business necessity it is still emerging. Now, making more room for the heart at work- embracing emotions, prioritising human connection and fostering inclusion- is why empathy as a professional skill is so championed today.

But what about the mind? The fundamental desire to learn and grow. This unselfish investment in employee development as both an individual and a successful team member, is what sets compassionate management apart.

Empathy v. compassion: what’s the difference?

Often erroneously used interchangeably, compassion and empathy do not mean the same thing. Although they both stem from the same fundamental desire and purpose – to understand another’s perspective – there are distinct differences in their definitions.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is the desire to understand someone’s motivations, struggles, thoughts and feelings and how someone will be impacted and affected by circumstances or decisions. Empathy is the ability to relate to someone and make them feel like this is the case.

Compassion is when you not only relate to someone, but you experience an emotional response that motivates you to help and change something for the better. It’s about problem-solving and behaviour. Compassion is what takes empathy to the next level, and what instigates change.

In other words, empathy is the emotion, compassion is the intention. You cannot have the latter without the former. But what does this look like in practice?

Empathetic leaders listen rather than lecture…

When you’re listening to someone talk, how often are you really just waiting to respond? And when you do, how frequently do you refocus the conversation on what you think or feel? Maybe you think you have the answer, and the intention is to truly help, but all a failure to properly hear translates into is a failure to properly care.

The deepest need of the human heart is to be understood- Stephen R. Covey

Most of us have a natural tendency to listen autobiographically. We filter what we’re hearing through our own experiences, then we evaluate, probe, advise, or interpret based on our own frame of reference. This robs your direct report of the feeling of being understood. In times of stress, this can be the difference between someone feeling isolated or included.

First and foremost, empathetic leaders resist the urge to talk. Rather than interrupt with questions or bright ideas, they encourage the other person to finish their thought, even if that means a slightly prolonged silence. Download our free toolkit to learn how you can listen like a leader to drive more powerful conversations.

Compassionate leaders then coach a way forward.

Relating to someone is essential to human connection, but it’s not the same as helping them. Compassionate leaders are a grounding presence, who actually care enough to take an emotional step back in order to navigate what is both necessary and best for the other person. They go beyond reflecting the other person’s feelings back at them, to working to find a solution together.

Coaching someone is at its core, a compassionate act. Just like giving someone a fish only enables them to eat for a day, telling someone what to do leaves them unable to solve future problems. Equipping someone with the right mindset or toolset affords them the sense of agency that the stress or change they are experiencing is diminishing.

Asking open-ended questions like “Could you say more about what you mean by x?”, “That sounds tough. What have you tried so far?”, “What impact is this having?” and “What would a successful outcome for you look like?” enable you to identify areas where you can support them, without prematurely influencing their perspective on the situation. It prompts them to go deeper and unlock a way forward for themselves.

But why is compassion a leadership superpower?

It is still common for leaders, who in an effort to maintain boundaries and earn respect, to mistake kindness as a weakness and not for the intelligence it is. In doing so, they relinquish more influence than they likely realise.

Research shows that when employees perceive compassion from their leaders, they become more loyal to them. By consistently acting on empathy through proactive, compassionate actions, you demonstrate credibility and integrity. You build authority without being authoritarian. You inspire trust and foster faith in both the decisions you make and guidance you give. Being compassionate isn’t about being a pushover;  it’s about being a unifying force towards the team’s purpose, without sacrificing the fulfilment or ignoring the complexity of the individual.

Whereas leaders who lack compassion tend to favour pressure as a motivator to increase productivity. They often see needs in a hierarchical sense, identifying some as more important than others, with the ultimate priority ostensibly given to the needs of ‘the business’ above all else.. What this mindset neglects to address is the fundamental point that the power achieved through demanding and commanding is superficial compared to the power achieved through the status of being influential.

Help your leaders practice self-compassion

Leaders who are intensely self-critical are more likely to view other people’s experience through that same lens: of judgement and dismissal. So, as with most things, leaders must go first- and fast.

Humu’s 2022 State of the Manager report found that managers’ jobs are 10x harder than they were before the pandemic. Managing shifting work environments, emboldened employee expectations, pressure to deliver and drive culture transformation is no mean feat for leaders who are only human themselves.

In such a high-pressure situation, it is easy to view self-criticism as an essential, even healthy, motivator. If you’re always ‘letting yourself off the hook’, how do you get better? How do you show commitment to your role? Not by burning out, spiralling or getting defensive. Research pointed to in a recent BBC Work Life article found that people with high self-compassion have the resilience and psychological safety needed to work harder in the face of perceived failure and make proactive, positive changes.

However, when it isn’t impressed upon leaders that they are also continually developing, that it’s okay to ask for support themselves,  show vulnerability or prioritise their personal life, they end up living in a state of anxiety that any slip will mark them as incapable. They lose compassion for themselves, and with that they lose courage to lead the way the future needs them to.

Gone are the days of viewing and treating your employees as a means to an end. The payoff for a compassionate mindset is, in turn, it encourages employees to see their jobs as more than a means to an end, too.

Compassionate leadership is intentional, dynamic and focused on the individual. It’s also a principle of behaviour that is integral to building a culture of trust within your organisation. Trust is an essential component to leading a high performing team. Here are 7 ways to build trust between you and your team.