Shifting Paradigms: How Compassion can be More Rewarding than Empathy in Leadership Communication ?

Love and compassion are necessities not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.

Dalai Lama

XIV, The Art of Happiness
“Listen with empathy but lead with compassion.”

Garima Jha

Empathy of late has become a buzzword in leadership communication as well as in parenting and teaching behaviour. We are being taught relentlessly to practice empathy. Empathy is a powerful tool to understand how others feel . We are motivated to step into the shoes of others to experience their true feelings.

However acording to researchers at University of Manitoba, empathy can backfire. It can even allow people to play the victim card. Overly empathetic behaviour can have its own downsides.

Empathy means recognising and sharing someone’s emotions. It also means experiencing the negative feelings because psychological research has shown that empathy might trigger the negative “meta-stereotypes”. It can:

1. Increase stress

2. Affect decision making

3. Diminish performance

4. Set false expectations

5. Colour reasoning and increase bias

Leaders are often expected to put other’s feelings above their own. This does not mean that leaders should surrender and withdraw their opinion to value that of their team members. The fact remains that a leader should be polite but firm. So the question arises how does one achieve that if not through empathy?

Olga Klimecki a researcher at Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany says, “When we share suffering of others too much our negative emotion increases. It carries the danger of emotional outburst.”

Based on the above researches and other studies on empathy and empathetic behaviour we can suggest that though empathy is useful as a supportive strategy which helps unburden the speaker and offers relief, alongside it can cause distress to the listener. So does that mean that people should stop practicing empathy? Well, certainly not.

Empathy as we know is of varying types as mentioned by Daniel Goleman in his book, Different Forms of Empathy. The leaders should be aware to choose between Affective empathy and Cognitive empathy. While Affective empathy is based on sharing emotions cognitive empathy relies on evaluating the feelings based on reasoning and rationality.

In other words, we can say that empathy can trigger negative emotions if not dealt with judiciously. An emotionally charged situation may make one feel less equipped to handle the problem. Again the question arises how to balance emotions and resolve a situation by not overreacting? How to help people overcome their fear and dejection by not drowning in the stream of overpowering emotions?

The answer lies in cultivating a culture of compassion. Compassion and love are words that are often looked upon with scorn and disdain in Management and Business circles. These, however, are the two most empowering attributes that one can possess as a leader. Compassion enables one to connect to others without feeling distressed. One need not disassociate oneself from unpleasant conversations or feelings but rather approach them through compassion.

If one is to understand the difference between compassion and empathy then it can be best understood by separately measuring the impact of both the qualities on employee performance and growth. Compassion by far has proved to be more rewarding when it comes to evaluating work efficiency and employee well being. Compassion is more effective in uplifting the spirit of the people and leading them towards constructive action. A Compassionate leader has the strength to sail through the difficult situation without getting affected by it. Compassionate behaviour has higher potential to predict a solution and is more encouraging. It enhances the capacities of individuals. If we strengthen our compassion skills we can be better equipped to cope with negative emotions and unpleasant conversations.

A study published in a Journal Cerebral Cortex suggests that we can better respond to the negative emotions of people by being more compassionate.

Compassion has the power to heal and uplift people. Compassion training can help leaders to :

1. Increase resilience

2. Stay optimistic

3. Connect better

4. Strengthen others by staying calm

5. Broaden the perspective and see the big picture

6. Allows for larger welfare of people.

So it is time for leaders to step into more compassionate roles and not merely restrict themselves to simply sharing the feelings of their people. Lift them up. Empower them and lead them to action.

Look for a way to lift someone up. And if that’s all you do that’s enough.

Elizabeth Lesser

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