Why Compassion is Better for Humanity Than Empathy.

Synopsis of an article from Forbes by Rasmus Hougaard, with Nick Hobson and Paula Kelley Published 8th July 2020

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and managing director of the Potential Project, an organisation focused on building mindful leaders and organisations. In this article he makes the slightly contentious point that leaders often mistake empathy for compassion.

Empathy is a foundational emotion for human connection, it is the spark for compassion but they are very different. With empathy we understand the suffering of others but with compassion we ask how we can help. For leaders recognising the differences is critical for “inspiring and managing others effectively”.

Empathy is impulsive, compassion is deliberate

Our empathetic feelings are an unconscious bias, they originate from the emotion centers of our brain and therefore we are less aware of and less intentional about those decisions.

Compassion is deliberate and reflective response from the cognitive part of our brain, we filter these thoughts through our conscious decision making.

Empathy is divisive. Compassion is unifying

Our empathy to other peoples suffering is perceived by our brains as hard work and we control our level of empathy outside our closest community. Our instinct is to protect those closest, but to perceive outsiders as a threat to social identity.

“Compassion is joining in others suffering irrespective of social or personal identity”. No matter a person’s age, race, sexual orientation, politics you are caring for the person in the moment.

Compassionate leaders work to lift themselves above their unconscious biases to see all people in the organization with similar worth. In doing so, leaders encourage attitudes of virtue and altruism throughout the organization, for all people.

Empathy is inert. Compassion is active

While through empathy you may feel for another person, because you are not taking any plan or action to help resolve the issue it is more likely to lead to negative feelings.

Compassion is constructive, it starts with empathy but grows with intent to help, aid and assist. “With compassion, leaders make a conscious choice to turn emotion into action.” This in turn has the potential to build positive outcomes across an organisation of trust, loyalty and improved collaboration.

Empathy is draining. Compassion is regenerative

Empathy triggered by another person’s issues can bring negative emotions that impact our cognitive resources and mental wellbeing.

Compassion is solution focused and restorative rather than draining. When we deliver help we get a dopamine hit.  So helping actually feels good, and so we are motivated to do it again in the future.

The Potential Project have a short Compassionate Leadership Assessment to help you understand how you compare to other leaders. If you decide that you have room for more compassion in your leadership, there are a few things you can do:


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