More and more leaders are discovering a neat trick that helps them build trust and loyalty with their team. It’s called empathy. You may have heard of it.
Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s emotional shoes. It can be uncomfortable sometimes—other peoples’ shoes often are—but it’s one of the most effective tools a leader has in trying to understand how to get the best out of their employees. Empathy comes as easily as breathing to some people. Others find it comes as easily as breathing underwater. Regardless of the circumstances, however, empathy is always a good thing.
You may know someone who gets too wrapped up in their employees’ struggles. Someone who stays up at night worrying about how an employee is handling their divorce or fretting about another employee’s test results. Maybe you are that person, or maybe you’re worried you might become that person.
There’s nothing wrong with being concerned about your employees. It’s very human. Noble, even. But, as strange as it may sound, empathy can become a problem, if misapplied.
Part of being a great boss is understanding the difference between empathy and compassion. There’s a fine yet salient line between the two, and staying on one side of that line can lead you down a road that hurts you without helping your employees.
Not Quite Synonyms
Some people treat the words sympathy, empathy and compassion like they’re interchangeable. Although nuanced, the distinction among the three is important to understand and put into practice.
Sympathy is the weakest of the three. A sympathetic person can recognize someone else is feeling something.
Empathy is stronger. An empathetic person can imagine how someone else is feeling, internally recreating those emotions and sensations.
Compassion lies somewhere in the middle. It’s stronger than sympathy, yet more active and slightly more detached than empathy. A compassionate person doesn’t just recognize someone is feeling something or understand how it feels, they take things a step further and try to help.
In other words, compassion combines understanding with a willingness to act. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s one that can have major implications in the workplace.
The Pitfalls of Empathetic Leadership
Most of us have been conditioned to think of empathy in universally positive terms. Our parents, loved ones, and life experiences have taught us that endeavoring to understand the experiences and struggles of others is a great virtue, and in most cases it is.
The Center for Creative Leadership found empathy was positively related to managers’ job performance in a 2016 white paper, for instance, and a study by Catalyst found a positive relationship between empathy and productivity, positive work experiences, innovation and inclusion. So how could something so positive become a problem?
Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, told this to the Harvard Business Review: “If I led with empathy, I would never be able to make a single decision. Why? Because with empathy, I mirror the emotions of others, which makes it impossible to consider the greater good.” This is the pitfall of leading with empathy instead of compassion. Empathy can lead us to make bad decisions based purely on emotion, decisions that may not benefit us or the people we’re trying to help.
The trick, then, is to ascend from the plane of empathy into the realm of compassion. Understanding what your people are going through is incredibly important to making your team operate at peak efficiency but taking on their emotional burdens is pointless (potentially counterproductive) if you don’t intend to help.
Compassion and Cohesion
You don’t need to break out your checkbook to pay off your employee’s medical bills or offer up your guest room to an employee who’s experiencing housing challenges. It would be very generous of you if you did, of course, but you can’t be all things for all people. You can’t be expected to fix your employees’ lives.
Compassion comes in all shapes and sizes. Being there to listen and reassure them when they’re struggling is an act of compassion. Giving them some temporary flexibility in working hours or letting them work remotely for a while is compassionate. Big gestures aren’t necessary or even advisable. All you need to do is understand what they’re going through, understand how they must feel, and help give them the support, tools, and/or grace they need to overcome and grow.
Matt Reiner, the founder of Benjamin, is a CFA and CFP and a partner of Capital Investment Advisors, a $2.8 billion RIA in Atlanta.