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Stop telling managers to be empathetic. Try this instead

David Rock, cofounder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, says when a leader is successful in recognizing a person in distress, taking perspective, and responding with meaningful action, the result is both people’s brains receive reward signals that trigger the release of brain candy (like oxytocin).

Stop telling managers to be empathetic. Try this instead
[Photo: Lina Trochez/Unsplash]

Empathy is the buzzword in today’s business lexicon. Work still isn’t normal. Millions of employees are still adjusting to frequently changing professional and personal demands, and we’re all collectively still traumatized by the events of the past 18 months. Leaders clearly need to be empathetic to support their teams and workforce. So it’s a good thing companies are starting to care about this concept more than ever, right?

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It would be, except for three big problems.

First, our understanding and definition of empathy are all over the map. Some people think empathy is simply listening to people, while others think it’s about understanding individuals. Employees in a recent EY survey think of empathy as fairness and transparency, while a McKinsey report frames empathy around mental health support services. Other reports suggest inclusion is the true sign of empathy. All of this confusion makes the concept incredibly difficult to prioritize and set targets around, not to mention trying to measure the effectiveness of building empathetic muscles.

The second big problem is the confusing science around empathy. While it’s encouraging to see empathy deeply studied in neuroscience labs across the globe, scientific literature shows a contradictory language of empathy, encompassing a broad range of interpersonal cognitive and affective processes, and a term used to describe distinct processes under that umbrella.

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There is also a dispute over whether it’s appropriate to group subcomponents under one all-encompassing term, because of the different parts of the brain involved in the processes. So not only do we have no good definition of empathy, but we also don’t have any clear alignment around the language of how it works in our brains, which means it’s difficult to measure or improve.

This brings us to the third problem with empathy. It turns out that some types of empathy are exhausting and difficult to maintain over time. Consider healthcare workers who experienced overwhelming exhaustion from dealing with the strong emotions of so many families grieving, while struggling with limited resources and working excessive hours. Practicing one type of empathy, which involves actively trying to see other people’s perspectives, takes a lot of cognitive resources, like doing complex math. When our mental resources are already taxed, as healthcare workers’ are, being empathetic in this way becomes a big issue.

But there is one type of empathy that, instead of exhausting us, can have the opposite effect: It can energize us. More importantly, it’s something that you can sustain over time. The lay term for this is compassion.

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Compassion is the power tool for energizing leaders and teams. If we recognize someone’s distress and successfully understand why they feel that way, but fail to do anything about it, we have offered sympathy. Sympathy without action is akin to telling someone: “I understand what you’re saying, and even though I wouldn’t feel that way, I can see why you do, and I’m sorry you feel that way.” There is a cognitive understanding of the impasse, but neither person ends up feeling great about the result. But if you go the extra step to take action that’s meaningful to the person in distress, that’s compassion—a gift that comes with abundant, unexpected benefits.

Here’s why it works so well: Compassion promotes motivation in our brains because it makes both the receiver and the giver feel better. When a leader is successful in recognizing a person in distress, taking perspective, and responding with meaningful action, the result is both people’s brains receive reward signals that trigger the release of brain candy—those sweet chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin that make us feel happy, energized, and promote stronger social bonds. When that release of chemicals occurs, it creates momentum that allows us to be more socially collaborative and innovative, which increases productivity and outcomes.

Consider a manager who has just learned of an employee with a hardship—an event has clearly impacted them but it’s nothing the manager can resolve, such as a death in the family. Instead of merely offering a sympathetic statement like, “I understand this must be difficult for you,” a compassionate manager might change the statement to a question: “I understand this must be difficult for you, I have covered your shifts for you today, would time off, or uninterrupted work without meetings for a bit be helpful, or is there something more specific I can do to help?” Going the extra mile and taking real action in the face of difficulties makes all the difference when it comes to what happens in the brain.

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Similarly, on an organizational level, acts of compassion can come in many forms. I recently heard about several: Leaders giving employees $500 annually to spend on physical or mental health services or subscriptions; two weeks off with pay for a firm-wide reset at the end of the summer; several mental health days added into time-off policies. All of these acts of compassion hit on the key idea of regeneration: they didn’t cause fatigue for givers and instead generated positive emotions on both sides.

To be sure, compassion is one of those terms that can make leaders feel squishy. If 68% of CEOs, according to one study, fear they’ll be less respected if they show empathy in the workplace, compassion is sure to set off alarm bells.

But compassion also has more impact on creating a culture of trust when there’s shared adversity and teams have experienced something difficult together. That’s because it helps create relatedness, synchronicity, and connections—a particularly powerful tool for leaders who are scrambling these days to retain employees. Perhaps in these times of shared trauma, leaders are more open to being human.

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Research also shows the more we practice compassion the more our brains develop. Cortisol thickness changes and functional connectivity increases, literally making our brains better with every action we take to help another person.

While there’s no prescribed dosage for practicing compassion—a little goes a long way, and a lot goes even further. So ditch the idea of just being empathetic, and energize your teams with the power tool of compassion. In the end, giving to others turns out to be good for us all.


David Rock is cofounder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, a cognitive-science consultancy that has advised over 50% of the Fortune 100, and the author of Your Brain at Work.

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