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Compassion vs. Empathy

Compassion vs. Empathy

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The difference between compassion and empathy

Why compassion matters

The importance of practicing compassion and empathy

How to become a compassionate leader

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.”

As empathy has gained traction as the answer to the challenges of modern work, its definition has blurred. You might wonder, what is empathy? Many of us have probably used it interchangeably with another concept, compassion. How would we define compassion?

Empathy and compassion stem from the same desires--to better relate and understand others’ experiences. Both are hugely beneficial to individuals and companies. But there’s a nuanced difference between empathy vs. compassion. 

For leadership, understanding that difference and choosing your approach deliberately is critical. It can determine whether you and your team members will feel an emotional contagion, like burnout, or not. The latest research shows that taking the compassionate route is uniquely aligned with not just great but sustainable leadership.

In this article, we will explore the differences between compassion and empathy and offer a compassion definition that is distinct from empathy. We will also address the question of why it is important to practice both compassion and empathy.

“Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness and compassion without wisdom is folly.”

Fred Kofman

The difference between compassion and empathy

Compassion and empathy are fundamentally different but closely related. Consider the definitions:

  • Empathy definition. Empathy is our feeling of awareness toward other people's emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel.
  • Compassion definition. Compassion is an emotional response to symapthy and creates a desire to help.


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. This makes 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 that some of the greatest minds in business today are singing, if not a new tune, an evolved one: 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.

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

Why compassion matters

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 importance of practicing compassion and empathy

As a leader, both empathetic leadership and compassionate leadership have been shown to have dramatic effects on employee happiness, retention, and overall well-being. As a leader you will want to use each effectively. 

In the world of increasing uncertainty, the people on your teams are facing more ambiguity in the day to day work. They also feel the pressure of keeping up with change in their personal and professional lives.  

Having empathy as a starting point sets the tone for the entire team to recognize that everyone is human. Empathy in this case is acknowledging that every employee or customer has a whole life of other concerns and stressors that we might be unaware of. Practicing empathy can unlock new insights into how better to serve customers and peers. 

Empathy lets the leader model practices such as assuming good intentions and focusing on behaviors and actions. This can avoid unproductive friction and maintain a better team dynamic. It also creates more safety around taking risks.

Practicing compassion is important because companies and organizations also need capable, empowered employees working together to solve problems and identify opportunities. We can empathize with why a team member is struggling, but ultimately we still need performance. The action component of compassion takes a clear-eyed view of what a team member is doing and where they are falling short and looks for ways to help them get past struggling.  

Practicing compassion is an important element to being an effective servant leader. Understanding what your people need to succeed and having the desire to help them succeed is fundamental to service. Compassion, and self-compassion, helps leaders create an environment where growth can happen. Research has shown that practising compassion not only makes the individual happier, it creates an environment that elevates everyone around them. It’s contagious, in a good way.

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

The good news is that both empathy and compassion can be trained and improved. Training and exposure that increase our awareness of others needs, values, and life experiences is common to both. 

For compassion, practices that help us connect more deeply to our own values can increase both our sympathetic concern and our intention to help. The motivation to act and the deepening of compassion comes from further developing our ability to effectively help others.  

As we practice compassion and see the impact on others--team members, peers, family--we can become more compassionate in how we think, feel and act. We become better at helping and serving others, and everyone benefits. This positive feedback cycle that is energizing and generative is what makes compassion sustainable and sustaining for leaders. 

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.