Why empathy isn’t great

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Empathy is a big buzzword in business right now. Every day we hear about empathetic leaders and teams striving to gain a new edge by tapping into our humanity.

And this is good news. Empathy is an important skill that we should all strive to develop and use. When we can see things from another person’s perspective, it allows us to strengthen relationships in good times and deal with conflict and disagreements in a way that doesn’t destroy them in bad times. Empathy is integral to building the trust that good teams and organizations thrive on.

But empathy does have downsides. First, it’s exhausting. Asking people, especially leaders who must interact with a many people every day with different beliefs, backgrounds and personalities, to constantly put themselves in other people’s shoes is mentally draining. There is only so much in our empathy reserves to draw from until we become drained. And an emotionally drained leader is not a good leader.

Second, empathy doesn’t come innately to everyone. It is a skill that can be developed, but some people have more natural capacities to build on than others. While we can all learn to be more empathetic, we may never be able to fully master it to the degree where it becomes second nature.

There is something other than empathy that we can bring into our workplaces that can be just as useful (if not more) without mentally draining people and that requires little skill or natural ability.

It’s compassion.

Whereas empathy requires us to feel what the other person is feeling and share in their emotions, compassion just requires us to feel for that person and have a desire to help them.

Compassion becomes more useful in building relationships because it’s possible to talk to someone who is experiencing something you’ve never experienced before, but still want to help them. Not having to actually suffer from the effects of negative emotions also allows you to maintain the energy necessary to give the best support.

Where empathy can be debilitating, compassion is uplifting. Studies have shown that compassion may lead to more positive interactions and more eagerness to help others in comparison to empathy.

So, the next time you’re struggling to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – don’t. Stay in your own shoes and put out your hand to help them instead.

A Team Human Conversation

Fight workplace zombies in your organization and join Team Human! Gather a group of fellow workplace zombie hunters to discuss our most recent blog post. Use the questions below to kick start your conversation.

  1. Discuss a time you showed empathy and a time you showed compassion. How were they different?
  2. How could compassion be beneficial to your team?
  3. How can you encourage more compassion in your organization/team?