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By Wilma Bedford

The difference between sympathy and empathy

While sympathy is about feeling compassion, sorrow or pity for the hardships of another person, empathy is the ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of that person. It involves experiencing another person’s point of view and enables spontaneous and voluntary behaviour to come to the aid of the person, or to ease or resolve his or her situation.

Empathy is considered to be an essential and critical leadership skill in the workplace, facilitating effective leadership, management, and practically any aspect of business that involves people. However, recent research indicates that empathy has its downside and that failing to recognise its limits can impair individual and organisational performance. Empathy taxes us mentally and emotionally. It is not an infinite resource, and it can even impair our ethical judgment. That is why, if we demand too much of it from employees, our performance will suffer.

Here are some of the biggest problems pertaining to empathy and suggestions on how to resolve them:

  1. Anxiety and burnout

Empathy depletes our mental resources. According to Adam Waytz, a constant demand on empathy leads to “compassion fatigue, an acute inability to empathise, that’s driven by stress, and burnout, a more gradual and chronic version of this phenomenon”.

Health and human services professionals (doctors, nurses, social workers, corrections officers), are good examples of this, as empathy is central to their day-to-day jobs. Excessive empathy is the tendency to sacrifice one’s own needs for those of others, leading to anxiety and feelings of trauma, with increased absenteeism and errors in job performance.

The demand for empathy is relentless in other sectors as well. Managers are required to motivate workers daily by understanding their experiences and perspectives and helping them find personal meaning in their work. Customer service professionals must continually quell the concerns of distressed callers. Empathy is exhausting in any setting or role in which it is a primary aspect of the job.

  1. Emotionally draining

Leaders in an organisation are often faced with tough situations, must make crucial decisions and handle dissatisfaction from subordinates, whether it be due to disappointment about a promotion that did not materialise, domestic problems that impact their work, or conflict between co-workers. Taking on the emotions emanating from these issues leads to exhaustion. Empathy in leadership can be draining and debilitating.

An empathetic person may find that there simply is not enough to go around. Empathy does not just drain energy and cognitive resources – it also depletes itself. Devoting empathy to one person may result in not having enough in reserve for another important person in one’s life, whether it be a family member, friend, customer or colleague.

Taking time to listen to co-workers’ problems and helping others with heavy workloads leave empaths less capable of connecting with their families or coping with work-related demands. Emotional residue accumulates, which may lead the empath to eventually shut down and become less willing or able to give of themselves.

  1. Clouded judgment and misplaced loyalty

Preferential empathy can antagonise those who see us protecting our own, which causes us to limit our capacity to empathise with those outside our immediate circle. This is easier to do because we care more about them to begin with. This creates a gap that widens due to our limited supply of empathy, and our desire to connect with “outsiders” wanes. Most people are likely to feel greater empathy for people like themselves and may feel less empathy for those outside their family, community, ethnicity or race.

The sense of group belonging and interdependence among members often leads people to tolerate an offense by one of their own, thereby diffusing responsibility to the collective whole instead of assigning it to the individual.” “In short,” says Adam Waytz, “empathy for those within one’s immediate circle can conflict with justice for all.”

The same principle holds for organisations. As leaders, empathy may cloud or distort our moral judgement. It encourages bias and makes us less effective at making wise decisions.

Compassion for one’s own employees and colleagues sometimes produce aggressive responses toward others. More often, insiders are simply uninterested in empathising with outsiders and can cause opportunities for constructive collaboration across functions or organisations to be ignored or passed by.

Misplaced loyalty or excessive empathy on the “inside” can also lead to dishonesty and cover-ups which are detrimental to workplace morale and the integrity of the organisation as a whole. In the same way, we unconsciously empathise with colleagues who are similar to us. They are offered better assignments and better positions, albeit unknowingly. Empathy can also mislead us to hire and promote those like ourselves. This could create an organisation that suffers from lack of diverse perspectives, limiting problem-solving and creativity.

Despite its limitations, empathy is essential at work. Managers should therefore ensure employees invest it wisely and are not counterproductive through misplaced or unwise application of it. This may be accomplished by applying the following techniques:

  1. Be objective

Scientists are not suggesting that empathy should be actively discouraged. There are times when stepping into somebody’s shoes is a necessary first step towards positive action, care and help for others, but it needs to be combined with constructive action to have real impact. Empathy needs to be accompanied by the skill and discipline to stand back, judge objectively and act accordingly. Showing empathy towards a subordinate or colleague undergoing a stressful situation should be tempered with mindfulness, selflessness and compassion without getting swallowed up by debilitating emotions. To be compassionate does not mean you have to share somebody’s feelings. It is more about the idea of extending kindness towards others.

Research suggests that a clearer distinction should be made between empathy and its apparent synonym: “compassion”. If empathy is about stepping into someone’s shoes, compassion is instead “a feeling of concern for another person’s suffering which is accompanied by the motivation to help”, according to neuroscientists, Tanya Singer and Olga Klimecki.

  1. Distribute empathy

Ask each employee to concentrate on a certain team or set of stakeholders, rather than empathising with anyone and everyone. Some employees might for example focus primarily on customers, and others on co-workers. In this way you create task forces to meet different stakeholders’ needs and make the work of developing relationships and gathering perspectives less consuming for individuals. By distributing “caring” responsibilities across your team or company, empathy becomes less bounded when managed across employees.

  1. Give people breaks

Despite the general perception that empathy comes naturally, it takes arduous mental effort to get into another person’s mind, and then to respond with compassion rather than indifference. As with any other occupation that requires periodic relief from demands made by the work at hand, employees also need breaks from empathy. Encourage employees to take time to focus on their interests alone. Self-focused breaks subsequently lead to feeling more empathy for others. When people feel restored, they are better able to perform the demanding tasks of figuring out and responding to what others need.

  1. Develop mindfulness

Inspired by scanning the brains of Buddhist monks, Singer and Klimecki discovered that it is possible to foster greater compassion in people via simple training methods based on mindfulness, where the goal is to feel positive and warm thoughts about others without focusing on vicarious experience. By comparing this training with techniques designed to foster greater empathy, they found that it reduces the effects of empathic distress and makes people more likely to be motivated to help others.



The surprising downsides of empathy.

Richard Fisher. 2 Oct. 2020



The dangers of being an empathetic leader.

Rasmus Hougaard & Jacqueline Carter. 5 Apr. 2018



The limits of empathy.

Adam Waytz. Harvard Business Review, Jan/Feb. 2016




Psychology Today 2021


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