Empathy wins over compassion: implications for CSR

I’ve been advocating for leadership with compassion. Particularly since the lockdown I've been saying that compassion will save us.

Last week I read a book by Chris Voss that advocated empathy over compassion or sympathy. I asked my LinkedIn network for their advice and 82% of them decisively voted for empathy.

What do you think matters most in leadership? 82% empathy, 2% sympathy, 16% compassion. 89 votes. Poll closed.

I used Voss’ definition of empathy as:

‘paying attention to another human being, making a commitment to understand their world.’

He defines sympathy as agreeing with a person’s beliefs.

Compassion as per Aristotle can be ‘suffering with’, it can also be ‘feeling with’.

It turns out that we want to be understood, more than we want people to ‘feel with us’.

Fay commented:

‘I don’t think it’s right to ‘suffer with’ someone - I don’t think that’s helpful for either party.’

What does it mean for Corporate Responsibility?

When people try to raise awareness of their causes, they often ask for compassion.

But perhaps we should focus on evoking empathy instead.

When we want a boss to give us the option of flexible working, we don’t need compassion, we need understanding that it’s good for business

When we want a company to take more action on climate change, we don’t need compassion, we need understanding of the consequences of inactivity on this matter.

When we raise money for people from a disadvantaged background, we don’t need compassion, we need understanding that empowering more people means stronger communities and stronger economies.

Skill rather than a character trait

Giving a person or a cause 100% of your attention and making a real commitment to understand their point of view is not easy.

I want to emphasise that I’m not talking about niceness. I’m talking about actions and active listening is one of the hardest actions there is!

Every time we choose to do that, we widen our understanding and come out better informed.

Alessandro said:

‘We should overcome the paradigm that being empathetic means to be a weak leader. In my view it is a huge strength nowadays.’

I agree!

I am not ready to give up on compassion and leading by compassion. There are times when only compassion would do. But let’s have leadership with empathy as our default.

To arrange a free 30-minute consultation on Corporate Responsibility or charity partnerships please email info@privategoodness.com

Chris Voss, 'Never Split the Difference' can be purchased here.

A drawing of a cat in a suit by Jack Brougham.