An executive coach explaining the difference between compassion and empathy.

What's the Difference Between Compassion and Empathy?

Andrew Lipovsky
August 8, 2021

Covid-19 has led to seismic shifts in nearly all facets of our lives, including the workplace.

More than ever, sound leadership is paramount in navigating through an uncertain business environment. Leadership is also vital in managing the human element in areas such as new work routines and re-skilling. 

This can be challenging, especially in the absence of prior leadership coaching, mentoring, or executive coaching on key management issues such as empathy and sympathy.

Empathy and sympathy are two traits that define outstanding leadership. The notion that the display of emotion denotes weakness is no longer applicable in the modern workplace. When blended correctly, it creates a harmonious environment where every team member feels valued, included, and respected.

For people in leadership, understanding the difference between compassion and empathy is vital. Whereas the two are often used together, they are not the same thing.

A quote by Ophrah Winfrey.

What is Empathy?

Psychology Today defines empathy as “the ability to recognize, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person, animal or fictional character."

What is Compassion?

The Association of Psychological science defines compassion as “the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help."

Paul Ekman, a pioneer in the study of emotion and one of the most cited psychologists, has researched the two topics and further breaks down empathy and compassion into the following categories:


·         Compassionate empathy: arises from a deep understanding of other people's feelings due to past experiences.

·         Emotional empathy: the ability to feel what people feel when there is some level of shared feelings.

·         Cognitive empathy: Also known as "perspective-taking." It is the ability to understand and then predict the feelings of others by placing oneself in their shoes.


·         Empathic compassion: feeling the emotions felt by a person suffering

·         Action compassion: concentrating on actions aimed at relieving emotional and physical pain

·         Concerned compassion: A concern for a person experiencing suffering with a desire of alleviating suffering

·           Aspirational compassion: intentional or aspirational concern that is more cognitive than emotional.

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How to Practice Empathy in Leadership

Leadership is all about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people to inspire and empower their lives.
Oprah Winfrey

The importance of empathy in leadership cannot be overstated. Some leaders have termed it as the number one leadership skill. Others refer to it as the most important leadership skill.

In a workplace, empathetic leadership can be practiced through the following strategies:

1. Showing sincere interest: by showing genuine interest in the hopes, needs, and dreams of other people, you get to build trust and confidence. Team members who see this in management better respond to delegated tasks and are willing to go beyond the call of duty.

2. Demonstrate a willingness to help: empathetic leadership demonstrates a desire to help when a need arises, such as personal loss. When team members get to learn that they are in a work environment that offers a should learn on, it boosts morale.

3. Be open to different perspectives: hearing different perspectives makes everyone feel acknowledged. This creates a safe space where people can freely share their opinions without feeling victimized.

4. Have an open-door policy: this means that the door to the management team is open to every employee to encourage open communication, feedback, or discussion. This build trust and a sense of belonging

5. Watch out for any sign of burnout & mitigate: According to Mayo Clinic, possible causes of burnout include a lack of control, unclear job expectation, work-life imbalance, and extremes of activity, among others. This can lead to sadness, fatigue, excess stress, and health conditions such as high blood pressure. Encouraging initiatives such as self-care and wellness programs go a long way in promoting empathy.

6. Learn to sit down and listen: Active listening that is deliberate goes a long way in building better relationships. During such a moment, sit down, offer full attention, and ask questions for better clarity.

7. Follow-through: following through on what has been discussed completes the equation. It brings reliability, trust and boosts morale.

How to Practice Compassion in leadership

 "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent." - General Douglas MacArthur.

In a graduation speech at Wharton, Jeff Weiner, the former CEO of LinkedIn explained why compassion Builds better companies. In the book, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, the authors Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton state that "compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities."

The bottom line is that if you need your organization to thrive, compassion needs to be ingrained in management. Here is how to foster compassionate leadership:

1.   Take a moment to learn about your team: Learning your team should go beyond checking their resume or small talk over coffee, taking time to understand more about your team members' backgrounds, essential milestones such as birthdays, hobbies, struggles, etc.

2.   Walk the talk: A compassionate leader walks the talk, i.e., actively inspiring your team members and genuinely caring for their well-being.

3.   Show gratitude: there are many ways of showing Gratitude, but ultimately, positive results should be reinforced through Gratitude. When team members know that their results matter, it fosters motivation to deliver more.

4.   Learn about compassion: compassion can be taught. If this is an area you feel you need improvement, never shy away from enrolling in an executive coaching program that will make you a compassionate leader.  A research study published in Psychological Science revealed that indeed compassion could be cultivated through training.

5.    Learn to listen: the importance of listening plays a significant role in affirming compassionate leadership. When team members learn that you provide a listening ear, it enriches the work culture and enhances openness.

6.   Show that you genuinely care: As you receive feedback from your team members, deliver feedback that shows you genuinely care. For example, invest in training and development, introduce a culture of wellness, extend paid leaves when necessary, etc.

7.Encourage a culture of cooperation: Encouraging a culture of collaboration over competition. Science supports this and shows compassionate leadership as it eliminates adversarial relationships among team members.

Three executives talking about compassion and empathy
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How we can help

At Highrise, we understand the challenges of the modern workplace and why compassionate and empathetic leadership matters more than ever. Through tailored executive coaching, we can create a solution that works to maximize your potential.