Leading With Compassion Means so Much More Than Empathy in Action

Posted on August 17, 2022 by Nate Regier / 0 comments
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The most current and consistent definition of empathy you will find in the literature can be summarized like this: 

Compassion is that feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and are motivated to relieve that suffering. 

Empathy In Action

Leading with compassion is not the same as leading with empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. In this definition, empathy or altruism are the instigators and motivators. Taking the next step to relieve the suffering is the “action” part.

Here’s the biological basis of empathy.

Defining compassion as empathy in action is promoted by the most prominent compassion research entities, like Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research. His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, is one of their subject matter experts.

A Limiting Definition of Compassion

Defining compassion as empathy in action limits our understanding and practice of compassion, particularly in a workplace setting for leaders. It assumes that the emotional experience of empathy is the only precursor and motivator for compassion.

Try telling this to an overworked leader trying to survive a high-stakes job in an uncertain job market. Empathy is the last thing on their mind, and the last thing they would feel comfortable embracing. From where they stand, the key to survival is innovation, drive, bold courage and opportunism. Empathy is not the key to their survival. 

In our experience, when learning to lead with compassion, starting with a definition grounded in empathy is a tough pill to swallow. This doesn’t mean that they don’t need to be kinder, more thoughtful, or consider the experience of others besides themselves. Perhaps it means that empathy can’t be the only onramp to leading with compassion.

I’ve met many leaders who lead with compassion but show little empathy. Furthermore, they would reject the notion that empathy motivates their behavior. They take plenty of action to help and support others, but it’s not because they feel for, or feel with the people they are leading. How do we validate their current state while helping them develop a fuller understanding and practice of compassion?

There are Many Reasons and Many Ways to Act Compassionately

Our work with personality diversity has opened up new perspectives for us and our clients on what motivates people into compassionate action. The Process Communication Model® (PCM), developed by psychologist Dr. Taibi Kahler, identifies six clusters of psychological needs which motivate behavior. Each cluster is tied to one of six distinct personality types in each of us. These in-born natural motivational needs help us understand why different people might act compassionately, and what it might look like.

For example, the Harmonizer type in us can easily make the emotional connection to others’ experiences and respond to the urge to make things better. “My heart goes out to you and I want to help.” About 30% of the population has Harmonizer as their strongest personality type. This motivator most closely aligns with the definition of compassion as empathy in action.

For the Thinker type in us, the holy grail is productivity. They are stirred to improve effectiveness and efficiency. If we want inclusion, they will research the best practices, identify how our processes and procedures need to be modified, and implement the metrics to show progress. This would be a tremendous contribution to building a more inclusive work culture; an equally valuable manifestation of compassion, albeit a very cognitive one, not motivated by empathy. 

The Persister type in us is stirred by a desire to align beliefs and behaviors. Persister values and principles are the beacon guiding them toward actions that increase justice, fairness, inclusion, or safety. Don’t confuse their passion for empathy. The emotions they experience and express are an indication of their commitment, not their connection. Walking the talk is their thing; a behavioral manifestation of compassion. About 10% of the population has Persister as their strongest personality type.

Compassion Is Accessible To Anyone, Even Without Empathy

Leading with compassion is not necessarily predicated on empathy. Anyone can lead with compassion, but not everyone is stirred by empathy. And that’s OK. This is a tremendously hopeful and encouraging message for many leaders out there whose empathy isn’t as prominent or accessible.

How does this translate into developing more compassionate leaders? Making compassion accessible to anyone starts with recognizing that different people have different motivational needs, and affirming those needs as a foundation for compassionate behavior.

Our strategy for building compassion in leaders starts with two fundamental questions; 1) What would a more compassionate workplace look like? 2) How are you motivated to help make that happen, and what can you contribute to support those outcomes?

How are you approaching the topic of leading with compassion? Interestingly, when we meet people where they are, they are more likely to journey with us into new places and take risks to expand their compassion perspectives and skillsets. It’s a win-win. 

Leading with compassion is more than empathy in action. It’s about being motivated in many different ways to make a positive difference in each others’ lives by using our in-born strengths as a starting point.

What’s your perspective on this topic? I’d love to hear from you. Will you leave a comment?

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2022

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