3 actions to close the huge caring, compassion, and empathy gap at work

by | Mar 14, 2022 | Blog | 0 comments

Any of these statements from managers and leaders sound familiar?

  • “Being compassionate is not in my DNA.”
  • “I respond to facts, figures and logic, not feelings and emotion.”
  • “I wasn’t born with the empathy gene.”
  • “If I show I care, I’ll be perceived as weak.”
  • “I won’t be respected if I show compassion.”

A disconnect exists between the powerful and those they manage and lead in many organizations.

With continued uncertainty swirling around after two years of living through the pandemic,  workers are requesting and expecting more kindness, compassion, and empathy from those they work for and with. Yet many leaders and managers are still resisting the call by articulating the above sentiments either verbatim or with variations.

For instance, recently an HR leader kept explaining to me that her personality type prevents her from connecting with her HR staff. Meanwhile, when I talked with her staff members one-on-one, they told me they felt like they were doing constant firefighting while being starved of resources, attention, and respect. And as a result, they said they were running on empty.

While this situation seems to be more extreme than most – I hope – it speaks to a big gap in some workplaces. When employees don’t feel their managers and leaders are showing care and compassion toward them, employees can feel depleted – and maybe even exploited.

At least five misconceptions, primarily on the part of leaders and managers, contribute to this big gap, such as:  

  1. Compassion and empathy are nice-to-have at work. No, instead, they’re must-haves if we’re to be well-functioning humans at work, according to Dr. Jamil Zaki, director of the Stanford social neuroscience laboratory and author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, who spoke at last month’s virtual NeuroLeadership Summit.
  1. A tradeoff exists between profits and compassion; you can have one but not the other. No, instead, quality connections lead to quality work that contributes to profits and feeds our soul. (Check out this Harvard Business Review article for more information.)
  1. Compassion and empathy are traits you’re born with. No, instead, they’re skills you develop by building stronger “compassion” and “empathy” muscles, as Zaki teaches. All humans have the capacity and capability to be kind, caring, compassionate and empathetic toward others.
  1. Saying you are caring, compassionate, and empathetic is the same as being caring, compassionate and empathetic. No, instead, you are only those things when individuals feel the impact of your kind actions.
  1. If you follow the Golden Rule, that is do to others what you would have them do to you, you’ll be in good shape. No, instead, you need to follow the Platinum Rule and treat others the way they want to be treated. This means you need to get to know and understand others as the unique humans they are and fit your responses to the individual. One solution doesn’t fit all.

Even when leaders and managers understand these misconceptions, they can still have a hard time becoming caring, compassionate, and empathetic. That’s because this is a complicated and nuanced topic. It requires you to take time and be intentional. Also, leaders and managers can face two other challenges.

First, if you’re a natural analytical thinker, you need to make sure you’re balancing your brain’s  “neural seesaw.” The brain has two distinct thinking networks, thinking socially and thinking analytically. According to Dr. Matthew Lieberman, director of the social cognitive neuroscience lab at UCLA and author of the book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, we’re able to switch between the two regions with ease — similar to a seesaw; hence, his term “neural seesaw.”

However, when you’re using one network, it’s harder to engage in the other, and vice versa. (Neuroimaging studies actually show that one brain region lights up when it becomes more active while the other one goes dark and gets quieter.)

Plus, most people naturally tend to use one of these two networks more than the other, which means your preferred network – such as the analytic network – will be your default, go-to way of thinking. (This is what has happened to the HR leader who’s so out of touch with her staff.)

Second, your position of power may get in your way. Research experiments have shown that people who feel more powerful don’t mirror others the same way that people who feel less powerful do. Mirroring others helps build rapport, trust, and increased collaboration.

Also, people who focus more on goals than relationships, such as paying more attention to completing tasks than getting to know people, aren’t as likely to engage in empathetic behavior. They’re less likely to take or get the perspective of others to try to understand their world. When you try to look at things from others’ perspectives, you tend to form and maintain better working relationships.

To build and strengthen your empathy and compassion muscles, you can try these three actions:

  • Improve your powers of observation. Pay more attention to the words individuals use, their expressions, their surroundings, and any other clues they may provide to help you get to know them.
  • Be curious and ask more questions. The answers you receive can help you ensure you’re accurately interpreting the information you’re collecting. That way you can better understand others, their situations, and their experiences, strengthen your connections with them, and show you care.
  • Reflect on what you learn from others that you didn’t know before. You can ask yourself: What did I learn about this person? And what did I learn from this person? And how should I adapt my behavior based on my new knowledge?

Leaders and managers who upskill and improve their empathy and compassion muscles can start to close important gaps at work. As several speakers emphasized at the NeuroLeadership Summit, the need for kindness, compassion, and empathy is here to stay.


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