As the pandemic unfolded, leaders faced a substantial emotional burden. Over nearly two years, they supported teams in dealing with the grief and loss caused by the pandemic, addressed declining mental health among employees, navigated people’s anxieties, and often openly shared their own vulnerabilities. They became like Counselors-in-Chief.
While excellent leadership requires sensitivity, having too much of it can become a problem, weighing leaders down. It’s crucial to let leaders know that they don’t have to shoulder all the problems of the people they manage.
You can shift from carrying the emotional load of empathy to enjoying the uplifting feeling of compassion. This change in how leaders interact with their employees is significant and beneficial for everyone. Understanding the difference between empathy and compassion is the first step.
Let’s distinguish between these terms. “Empathy,” “compassion,” and “sympathy” are often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing. Compassion involves understanding another person’s feelings and a desire to act to alleviate their pain. It differs from empathy, sympathy, and pity.
Pity, in the lower-left corner, involves feeling sorry for someone without much understanding or action. As we move up the chart, sympathy involves increased eagerness to help and understanding. Empathy, a step further, means having a close, intuitive grasp of another person’s experience, feeling with them.
Finally, there’s compassion, where the focus is on the intention to act while having a strong grasp of the other person’s experience. It combines emotional awareness with cognitive knowledge, fostering a better understanding. Compassion is more about intention than just a feeling.
Why does this matter?
Leading with empathy alone might make decision-making challenging, as it involves mirroring others’ feelings, hindering the evaluation of the greater good. Empathy, while usually driving us to do the right thing, can sometimes lead to the wrong decisions, as research suggests.
Empathy might distort judgment, increase prejudice, and make leaders less effective decision-makers. However, it’s essential and should not be avoided. A leader without empathy is like a car without a spark plug—it won’t start. Empathy is crucial for connection, and once established, leaders can use it to lead with compassion.
The challenge for most leaders is that empathy tends to trap them, preventing a shift to compassion.
Compassionate Leadership: Escaping the Empathy Trap
Leaders need to overcome an empathic hijack. Moving away from empathy doesn’t make you less kind or human—it enhances your ability to help others in stressful situations. Here are six critical ways to leverage empathy for more compassionate leadership:
- Take a mental and emotional step away from the situation.
When someone is suffering, try to take a mental and emotional step back to avoid getting caught in an empathetic hijack. This allows you to gain a better understanding of the situation and the person, providing the best vantage point for offering help.
- Ask what they need.
By asking, “What do you need?” you empower the person to consider their needs and provide insight into how you can assist. Listening and acknowledging their needs are the first steps in helping someone who is suffering.
- Remember the power of non-action.
Recognize that not every problem requires an immediate solution. Sometimes, people just need to be heard and acknowledged. Practicing “non-action” can be a powerful way to assist in such situations.
- Coach the person so they can find their solution.
Effective leaders don’t just solve problems; they empower others to address their challenges. Guide and coach individuals to help them figure out solutions on their own, providing a life-changing opportunity for growth.
- Practice self-care.
Leadership involves emotional labor, absorbing, processing, and redirecting others’ sentiments. Practicing self-care, including taking breaks, getting enough sleep, eating well, building meaningful connections, and practicing mindfulness, is crucial for leaders to be resilient, grounded, and in touch with themselves. This, in turn, allows them to provide comfort and support to others.