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ATD Blog

Going Beyond Empathy and Leading With Compassion

Monday, April 18, 2022

Over the past few years, the boundaries between work and personal life have blurred. Not only have toddlers and cats joined us in our strategy meetings, but leaders have been asked to play a more active role in the well-being of their employees, many of whom have struggled with grief, anxiety, and uncertainty.

This newfound responsibility is taking a toll on leaders. By empathetically connecting with others’ suffering, we risk being weighed down by their challenges and losing our perspective as professionals. In response, we can be tempted to shut off our emotions and relate to our employees simply as workers hired to get the job done.

Fortunately, there is a solution beyond these extremes of empathetic distress and cold disconnection. When we tap into the natural spark of empathy, we can lead with compassion.

Neuroscience and brain imaging show us that empathy and compassion are two distinct mental states. Empathy is the ability to recognize and share others’ feelings and perspectives. When we empathize, we feel with the person, take on their emotions, and make their feelings our own. Compassion is the intention to be of benefit to others. When we’re compassionate, we step away from empathy and ask ourselves how we can support someone going through challenges and difficulties.

Within the context of leadership, understanding this distinction is critical to securing your well-being and the well-being of the people and organization we lead. This conclusion is based on a multiyear research study on compassionate leadership that my colleagues and I conducted with Harvard Business Review and academic partners, serving as the foundation of our new book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way.

Empathy can get in the way of doing what we need to do to run a sustainable organization and balance the needs of multiple stakeholders. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, said, “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 and make the right decisions. You need to have empathy on a human level but run a business with compassion.”


When empathy is used as a springboard to catalyze compassion, leaders and their people experience the greatest benefit. Leaders with a preference for compassion over empathy show a 12 percent decreased risk of burnout. This translates into an 11 percent decrease in mortality risk. They experience a 30 percent greater level of subjective well-being and happiness in their life in general, and they also feel a 14 percent greater confidence in their leadership ability. Compassionate leaders also are more likely to promote diversity and inclusion because they focus on the greater good rather than the well-being of one individual.

Compassion can be a better moral guide than empathy. Research by Paul Bloom, professor of cognitive science and psychology at Yale University, discovered that empathy can distort our judgment so that we benefit those we feel empathetic toward. In contrast, compassion compels leaders to make decisions that consider multiple people’s needs.

And it’s not just compassionate leaders who have better outcomes in the office and out. Our research shows that the followers whose leaders show a preference for compassion over empathy are 25 percent more engaged in their jobs, are 20 percent more committed to the organization, and have an 11 percent lower risk of burnout.


We may not be prebuilt for compassion, but it can be developed. Here are a few practical strategies for using empathy as a catalyst to act with compassion:

  • Establish emotional resonance. Humans in pain seek recognition of their feelings. Don’t move into solution-mode before establishing emotional resonance.
  • Ask what they need. Give the person an opportunity to reflect about how you can best support them.
  • Practice self-care. Leaders face the possibility of emotional exhaustion. Find ways of staying resilient, grounded, and in tune with yourself.

When we lead with both empathy and compassion, we help ourselves, our people, and our organization experience greater connection and navigate an uncertain future together with greater skill and fortitude.

If you’re interested in learning more or have best practices of your own to share, join me at the ATD 2022 International Conference & EXPO for the session Connect With Empathy and Lead With Compassion.

About the Author

Jacqueline Carter is passionate about working with leaders to enhance performance, effectiveness, and well-being. She is a partner with Potential Project and has worked with leaders from around the globe, including Sony, American Express, RBC, and KPMG. She is a co-author of the book One Second Ahead—Enhancing Performance at Work With Mindfulness.

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