Being a successful leader encompasses far more than literally telling your employees what needs to be done. Not only should leaders be able to handle unexpected situations, including those like navigating through an economic downturn and a global emergency, but they must also listen to their staff in order to better guide them to do what needs to be done. In fact, a recent study of more than 150 CEOs found that the best skills for leading successfully are listening and responding compassionately. The same study shows that almost 85% of those CEOs believe that “empathy drives better business outcomes.” But distinguishing between empathy and compassion is an important part of the process
When we are empathetic, we are aware of others’ emotions and experiences and can even often relate to their feelings and experiences; we can see ourselves in that person’s shoes. Psychology Professor Paul Bloom writes that “empathy makes us biased,” especially when we more closely relate to what another person is going through, regardless of whether the shared experiences are positive or negative.
It’s important to note that empathy can be viewed more like a skill than a trait; even when empathy doesn’t come naturally, it’s possible to work harder at honing it. This means that the emotional quotient of feeling less empathy for someone who, for example, has treated you unfairly in the past can be increased when acknowledged and addressed.
Compassion is similar to empathy, but involves a drive to actually help the other person – not just understand where they’re coming from. Compassion creates a much needed emotional distance from the individual and the situation being faced. This distance helps shape and control leaders’ emotional reactions to what’s happening.
In a Current Biology article, the authors state “Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.” This key distinction can help leaders make an informed decision regarding how to lead with compassion or with empathy.
Although empathy is a critical leadership skill and 90% of Gen Z-ers say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer, practicing empathetic leadership should still be employed judiciously. Always relating to employees’ circumstances, particularly when those situations are ongoing and/or often negative, could affect morale and productivity. Indeed, an overabundance of empathy in the workplace can cause burnout and withdrawal and also lead to making bad decisions.
Practicing compassion allows leaders to take the time to consider and understand the stresses people are experiencing so you can be better equipped to take appropriate action. Being a compassionate leader means showing genuine interest in your workers’ success and well-being and a commitment to understanding – but not necessarily agreeing with – how they may be handling what’s happening.
While leaders should be cognizant of their employees’ personal lives to a certain degree – especially when it comes to what those staff members bring to the workplace – ensuring boundaries are respected is also an integral part of how business gets done. After all, we can certainly empathize with why an employee may be stressed, but in the end, we still need them to perform their job.
Executive coaches are powerful allies in giving leaders the tools to master balancing empathy and compassion in the workplace. I’d love to learn how I can help you be an effective yet empathetic leader and manage your team more compassionately.