Much has been written in recent times – particularly since COVID – about the role of empathy in leadership, but I would argue that exceptional leaders go beyond empathy. Those who can show compassion in leadership have an even deeper connection with their teams, inspire greater levels of trust and command higher respect. Compassionate leaders create teams that are more effective, more productive and happier, and in turn they personally derive even greater satisfaction from their role.

But what is the difference between empathy and compassion in leadership? In this blog I’ll examine the subtle but important distinction between the two and in our next article will offer some advice on how you can upgrade from empathy to compassion.

Defining the difference

If you were to look up either empathy or compassion in a thesaurus, they would be listed as synonyms. But, while their meanings may be similar, they are certainly not the same. On the plus side, this arguably makes it easier to modify your empathic behaviours in order to achieve a state of compassion. But it also means that it’s possible to confuse the two and miss the vital – but subtle – differences between them.

In seeking to understand the difference, this short video from the Compassion Research Lab is a useful explainer. Their research has examined the “true nature of compassion” and summarises it very clearly:

“Empathy is when someone tries to understand what it would be like for them if they were in your situation, by trying to feel what you are feeling… They imagine what it would be like for them to be in your shoes… Empathy …makes you feel heard, understood and a bit better about your situation.”

“Then there are those who try to really understand what it is like for you, to feel what you feel, and who aren’t afraid to suffer with you and to do something to help. They actively listen, they’re kind, they’re loving and they genuinely seek to understand you and your unique needs, then they go one step further and…help out…Most important of all, they actually do something to improve your situation. That is compassion.”

In the eye of the beholder

It seems to me that it is the recipient who feels the difference between empathy and compassion most keenly, and this is why compassion is such an important ingredient in leadership. To get the most out of a team, to enable them to perform at their very best, as leaders we must be able to adapt our leadership style and behaviour to suit every individual within that team. We must understand and connect with each person and treat them as THEY wish to be treated, not as WE wish to be treated.

From judgment to compassion

When someone in our team isn’t performing as we’d like or expect, it’s natural to move to judgment, not least because judgment is systemic in most organisations. The appraisal process is built around judging others, bonuses and pay rises are based on assessing people by their performance and contribution.

But what if, rather than rushing to judgment, we first assume good intent? In doing so, we are far more likely to understand, and understanding is the first step to compassion.

In our next article we’ll offer some advice to on how to boost your compassion in leadership. In the meantime, if you have any questions or observations on the topic, please do get in touch.

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