Leading with Compassion

The pandemic thrust leaders to carry a significant emotional load. For nearly two years, aiding teams in recovering from the pandemic’s grief and loss, bolstering their employees’ declining mental health, being sensitive to people’s anxieties, and often publicly sharing their vulnerabilities along the way. They’ve been Counselor-in-Chief. 

Of course, excellent leadership demands this level of sensitivity. But having too much of it might be an issue. It can weigh you down. We remove a significant load off their shoulders when we tell leaders that they don’t have to take on the problems of the people they manage. 

You may learn to enjoy the uplifting sensation of compassion instead of carrying the load of empathy. This is a meaningful change in how leaders interact with their employees, and it benefits everyone. Understanding the distinction between empathy and compassion is the first step.

What’s the Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?

Let’s begin by defining these similar terms. “Empathy,” “compassion,” and “sympathy” are all terms that are often interchangeably used. They all embody positive, altruistic characteristics, yet they don’t all refer to the same event. Consider the two unique traits of compassion: the ability to understand what another is feeling and the desire to act to alleviate another’s pain. Compassion is different from empathy, sympathy, and pity. 

We have pity in the lower-left corner. When we feel pity, we are less likely to act and have a limited grasp of another’s situation. We merely feel bad for them. We sense sympathy as we move up the chart to the right. Our eagerness to help and our knowledge of one another has slightly increased. We feel for the other person.

Moving up a notch, we get at empathy. We have a close, intuitive grasp of the other person’s experience when we have empathy. We feel with the individual. We take on the other person’s emotions and adopt them as our own. This makes people feel less alone. 

Finally, we have compassion. This is a desire to act while having a strong grasp of what the other person is enduring. We have a better comprehension of the other person’s experience than when we use empathy alone because we couple our emotional awareness with our cognitive knowledge. When we take a step back from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to help the person who is suffering, we have compassion. Compassion is an intention rather than a feeling.

What is the significance of this?

When you lead with empathy alone, you may not be able to make a single decision. Empathy causes you to mimic other people’s feelings. That makes it challenging to evaluate the greater good.

Empathy typically encourages us to do the right thing, but it may also motivate us to do the wrong thing. Empathy can impair our judgment, according to research. Two sets of participants listened to a recording of a terminally sick child talking about his agony. One group was urged to identify and feel for the child. The other group was told to listen critically and avoid becoming emotionally involved. Each respondent was asked if they would move the child up a prioritized treatment list controlled by medical specialists after listening to the recording. Three-quarters of participants in the emotional group elected to elevate him up the list despite medical professionals’ advice, placing sicker people in danger. Only one-third of the participants in the objective group agreed on the same proposal.

Empathy may distort our judgment, increase prejudice, and make us less effective decision-makers as leaders. It should not, however, be avoided. A leader who lacks empathy is like a car without a spark plug: it won’t start. Empathy is necessary for connection, and after we’ve established that, we can use the spark to lead with compassion.

And herein lies the problem for most leaders: our empathy tends to cage us, preventing us from shifting to compassion.

Compassionate Leadership: Avoiding the Empathy Trap

A leader needs to overcome an empathic hijack. When it comes to practicing this skill, keep in mind that moving away from empathy does not make you any less kind or human. But it improves your ability to help others in stressful situations. Here are six critical ways for leveraging empathy as a driver for more compassionate leadership.

Take a mental and emotional step away from the situation.

When you’re around someone who is suffering, attempt to take a mental and emotional step back to prevent becoming caught in an empathetic hijack. Move out of your emotional and mental zone to get a better understanding of the circumstance and the individual. That’s the best vantage point for you to help. You’re not being harsh by creating that emotional barrier. You are not walking away from the individual. Instead, you’re taking a step back from the problem so that you can help solve it. 

Ask what they need.

When you ask the simple question, “What do you need?” you are starting a solution to the problem by allowing the person to consider what they may need. This will give you a better idea of how you can help. The first step in being helped for the suffering person is to be heard and recognized.

Remember the power of non-action.

Leaders get things done. When it comes to those who are facing difficulties, it’s vital to realize that they don’t always need your answers. They need your ear and your loving presence. Many issues only require that they be heard and addressed. Taking “non-action” might frequently be the most effective way of assisting in this way.

Coach the person so they can find their solution.

The best leaders don’t just solve other problems. That’s what a crutch is for. Leaders should develop and grow others to address their problems. Avoid robbing them of this life-changing chance by addressing their problems head-on. Guide and coach them. Show them how to figure out the answers on their own.

Practice self-care.

Authentic self-care demonstrates self-compassion. Managing one’s thoughts to effectively manage other people comes at a price. The work of absorbing, processing, and redirecting other people’s sentiments is emotional labor. As a result, we must exercise self-care as leaders: take pauses, get enough sleep, eat properly, create meaningful connections, and practice mindfulness. We must develop strategies for being resilient, grounded, and in touch with ourselves. People may count on us and find consolation and comfort in our well-being when we show up at work with these attributes.

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