A blueprint to sustainable empathy for leaders
When I started studying empathy, nearly 20 years ago, its status in the workplace was controversial. Many people believed that empathic leadership — which draws on the ability to understand, care about, and vicariously experience the emotions of others — was too “soft” for the hard-charging, competitive world of business.
By now dozens of studies have demonstrated the opposite. Empathy is not a weakness but something of a workplace superpower. Employees are more satisfied in their jobs, more willing to take creative risks, and more likely to help their colleagues if they work in empathic organisations. They are far less likely to report severe burnout or to develop physical symptoms of stress and are more resilient in the face of adversity. They also tend to stay: a 2022 Gallup survey of more than 15,000 US employees found that those with caring employers were far less likely than others to actively search for a new job. In 2021 Ernst & Young surveyed more than 1,000 workers who had left their jobs during the Great Resignation and found that 58% cited a lack of empathy from their managers as a central cause of their departure. Increasingly employees, especially millennials and gen zers, don’t merely hope for empathy from their leaders — they demand it.
But for all its virtues, empathic leadership can be emotionally exhausting. Imagine wearing an empathy helmet that transmits the feelings of the people you work with into your head and heart. When you adopt empathy in the workplace, you expose yourself to the emotional ups and downs of everyone you manage — a welter of joy, anxiety, anger, self-doubt, fear, confusion, exuberance, jealousy, sadness, disappointment, and more. The 2020s, with all their challenges, have left employees stressed, exhausted, and pushed to the brink. When the people around us suffer, the empathy helmet becomes much heavier.
It’s possible to absorb only so much. A 2022 survey from Future Forum found that middle managers report more burnout than do workers of any other type. Empathy can even take a physical toll: one academic study found that while teenagers of empathic parents report less depression than their peers do, those parents show more cellular signs of aging than other parents do. In being empathic, it seems, they help their kids but hurt themselves.
A need to practice empathy may also increase self-criticism. For leaders, it can become another item on the to-do list to be fretted over. Recently a friend of mine, who works as an executive at a Fortune 100 technology firm and is brimming with empathy, confessed that he constantly second-guesses his caring. “I feel like I’m never enough,” he said, “even in my empathy for my people. Anything going wrong with them means I’ve failed.”
Not surprisingly, given the costs, some managers believe they must make a choice: be empathic and sacrifice their own well-being for the good of others, or back away emotionally and leave their people high and dry. Fortunately, this dilemma is more imagined than real. You can employ three strategies to manage your caring as a leader, which together form a practice I call sustainable empathy. In this article, drawing on my experience as a psychologist and a neuroscientist, I’ll describe those strategies.
Much of what I’ve learned about sustainable empathy comes from spending time with healthcare professionals. Especially in emergency and critical care settings, physicians, nurses, and social workers encounter a stream of people who are having the worst days of their lives. These workers drink from a fire hose of human misery, go home to care for their own families, and then return to do it all over again.
That takes a toll. Three decades ago the nurse Carla Joinson first described “compassion fatigue,” an affliction common among those in her profession who cared so much for patients that their emotions ran dry. When we’re chronically exposed to the suffering of others, we experience fatigue, which in turn leads to burnout, defined as a general loss of meaning and connection. Both fatigue and burnout skyrocketed among caregivers during the Covid-19 pandemic. Today more than half of all nurses report severe burnout — an epidemic on its own.
In the so-called caring professions, such as medicine and teaching, empathy has long been at the heart of people’s work — and has often become an occupational hazard. Nurses and doctors experience an intense form of this problem, but many workplace managers experience something similar. The need to empathise with struggling employees can leave them emotionally ragged, making it harder for them to do their jobs well. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve met nurses and physicians who manage to be both stalwart in their connection to patients and hardy and healthy themselves. Here are the three strategies I’ve discerned.
1. Physician, heal thyself
You doubtless wouldn’t look to a regular smoker for advice about how to quit, or to someone with a messy home for tips on tidying up. The ancient proverb “Physician, heal thyself” signals that we shouldn’t trust people to help us who can’t help themselves. Some healthcare workers I’ve observed are laser-focused on doing everything they can for patients and families but rarely think about or take care of themselves. I once shadowed a doctor for six hours and only later realised that she hadn’t eaten, drunk water, sat down, or used the bathroom all day. Other healthcare workers do think about self-care — but only as a sign of weakness. “If I have any little piece of energy left at the end of the day,” one told me, “then I didn’t do all I could”.
This way of thinking, which we might call a “martyr mentality,” is common among empathic managers. To avoid feeling selfish, many of them absorb the stress others are suffering. And some wear the martyr mentality like a badge of honor. But if they fail to care for themselves, can they be relied on to support the wellbeing of their reports?
Experiencing extreme stress isn’t just painful; it also harms your ability to truly be there for your people. Stress numbs you to others’ concerns, makes it harder to see the world through their eyes, and may even make you more aggressive. In one recent study in Personnel Psychology, 112 managers were surveyed over 10 consecutive workdays. The more that people vented to their managers, the researchers found, the more negative emotion the managers felt the following day — which predicted that they were likely to mistreat others on their teams. When you let yourself burn out, you deny everyone else the best version of yourself.
The good news is that caring for yourself is the opposite of selfish: it’s a vital path to sustainable empathy. Research on college students, workers, and long-term mediators has shown that people who care for themselves tend to be deliberate in their connections to others. And recent studies of social service providers and business students have shown that practicing “self-compassion,” in particular, protects people from exhaustion.
Self-compassion, which draws on Buddhist techniques for coping with suffering, was brought to modern behavioral science by the psychologist Kristen Neff. It involves three steps: cultivating awareness of what you’re going through; focusing on “common humanity,” which involves recognising that suffering is universal; and establishing goodwill by extending kindness and grace to yourself.
These practices are powerful. Research finds that people high in self-compassion tend to be mentally healthier than others, more able to control their emotions, and quicker to recover from setbacks. But few people appreciate its benefits. In a survey of about 400 college students, Neff found that the majority reported being kinder to others than they are to themselves. And in new research from my own lab, about half the people we surveyed believed that self-compassion makes one complacent and irresponsible. Those who held these negative beliefs were less likely to be kind to themselves after failures and to bounce back from them.
No matter what industry you’re in, managing others well begins with managing yourself. You can do that in a few ways.
Acknowledge the distress that comes from caring about the pain of others
After talking with a struggling colleague, take stock of your own emotions. If the conversation left you drained or upset, give yourself some time to process it.
Treat yourself with the same grace you offer others
Like my friend the tech executive, you may feel that anything going wrong with your team is your fault. But if a friend came to you with the same problem, you probably wouldn’t judge that person as harshly.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Leaders often feel they have to project confidence and serenity no matter what. But as a leader you’re a model for your team, and if you’re willing to be vulnerable, others are likely to follow your example. That is good for everyone. Most workers are eager to help their colleagues, and teams with a culture of helping tend to be efficient, creative, and tight-knit. I’ve seen this in my lab, where we begin some meetings with attendees sharing something they could use help with — a practice that produces an avalanche of goodwill and openness. I know firsthand that leaders often have trouble admitting they could use support, but amazing things can happen when people in power overcome that reluctance and allow themselves to reveal how they feel.
2. Learn to tune your caring
Over the course of my career, hundreds of people have confidently told me what empathy is — but their definitions of it have often differed. Does empathy mean walking a mile in someone else’s shoes? Feeling what others feel? Being kind to them?
Some of this confusion arises because empathy isn’t one thing at all. It encompasses multiple ways in which we connect with others. Two in particular matter for understanding burnout: emotional empathy involves taking on someone else’s feelings. Empathic concern involves wanting to improve someone else’s wellbeing.
These forms of empathy are connected in some ways but diverge in others. For example, a person who tends to take on other people’s feelings won’t necessarily score high on empathic concern. Newborn babies and many animals show signs of emotional empathy; empathic concern is rarer in the animal kingdom and takes time to develop in children. There’s a reason for this divergence: research has shown that different forms of empathy are supported by different systems in the brain.
Crucially, when it comes to burnout, these two types of empathy are not created equal. For instance, doctors who are emotionally empathic (they tend to take on others’ distress) are likelier to burn out than those high in empathic concern (they have an urge to help). We seem to understand this intuitively. People high in emotional empathy tend to avoid volunteering if it means encountering suffering people, while people high in empathic concern dive right in. Often emotional empathy is simply not what others need from us: a manager who cries uncontrollably while you share your problems is unlikely to be very comforting or helpful. As one scholar of medical empathy writes, “Caring binds, but sharing blinds.”
The lesson here is that you can tune in to different frequencies of empathy. Resilient healthcare workers do that in two ways: in difficult moments they calibrate their emotions, keeping their empathic concern high and their emotional empathy relatively low; and they create space for patients’ emotions, pay close attention, and offer comfort while also maintaining some boundaries. This is often what patients want. In The Empathy Exams, the writer Leslie Jamison describes her time as a medical actor who would pantomime symptoms for doctors in training and rate their responses to her. Jamison imagined that emotional connection would matter — and it did. But the kind of connection mattered as well. She most appreciated students who were present but didn’t take on her (pretend) distress. Describing one student who did this well, she writes, “His calmness didn’t make me feel abandoned, it made me feel secure,” adding, “I needed to look at him and see the opposite of my fear, not its echo”.
You can help yourself and the people you work with by tuning yourself toward concern and away from distress. In a recent study, psychologists surveyed more than 2,000 Harvard Business Review readers in leadership positions, along with more than 1,000 of the people they manage. The leaders were given hypothetical scenarios in which people on their teams were struggling and were asked the extent to which they would respond by trying to take on the feelings of an individual (emotional empathy) or to express caring for that person (empathic concern). Leaders who focused on concern were less burned out, more effective in their work, and less likely to want to leave their jobs. Furthermore, the positive effects of concern reverberated: employees who worked with those leaders rated them as particularly caring and competent.
In other words, empathy doesn’t just connect people; it helps us lead more effectively. This advantage is driven by empathic concern and is especially strong during difficult moments. In one study researchers examined 360-degree reviews conducted at a large Canadian company, focusing on negative feedback from managers. Such performance conversations are never fun — and they can be exhausting for managers who take on others’ distress. But when managers high in empathic concern provided feedback, the people who reported to them were more likely than their colleagues to appreciate it. And those managers were more likely to be viewed as promotable by their bosses. Empathic concern can convert challenging moments into opportunities to connect.
That doesn’t mean emotional empathy has no place. Years ago my colleague Sylvia Morelli and I asked people to complete this sentence: “I feel empathy when someone else feels _______.” Respondents named negative emotions 40 times as often as positive ones. That’s common: most people think of empathy as a portal into others’ pain. But it can — and should — also be a portal into their joy. I’ve seen firsthand that wise healthcare workers remember to ride emotional highs with patients and families, replenishing their own reserves for the inevitable lows. When you can share the joy people are feeling, your empathy helmet doesn’t exhaust you; it energises you.
We can all benefit from tuning our caring more intentionally. Begin by asking yourself, “What kind of empathy do I want to bring to this situation?” Consider what your colleagues need from you and what you need to keep going without burning out. Probably you’ll realise that empathic concern, rather than emotional empathy, aligns with the needs of everyone involved and with your values as a leader. In those moments try to manage your own emotional landscape. Acknowledge your colleagues’ suffering but don’t get stuck in it. A minute of deep breathing can help. At the same time, lean into empathic concern and goodwill. Think about — maybe even write down — how you’d like your colleagues’ well-being to improve and what you can do to help.
In other cases, you may realise that emotional empathy is appropriate. When wins occur, no matter how small or rare, savour them with your employees and create ways for them to celebrate one another, using shared feelings to bring your team closer.
3. Remember that empathy is a skill
Take a moment to think of the most and the least empathic people you’ve ever known. Then ask yourself how they got to be the way they are. You might find that question nonsensical if you believe that empathy — or a lack of it — is hardwired into us at birth. Many people seem to hold that belief: About a decade ago Carol Dweck, Karina Schumann, and I put the question to study participants and discovered that about half of them thought that people cannot change the degree of empathy they feel. If you share that view, you probably believe that sustainable empathy is out of reach.
Fortunately, decades’ worth of evidence demonstrates that empathy is more like a skill than a trait. Yes, some people are born more empathic than others, but sustainable empathy is within your grasp. Furthermore, Carol, Karina, and I have found that when people understand empathy as a skill, they work harder at practicing it. Much of my work over the past five years has focused on empowering people and organisations with this knowledge, showing them practical tools for building empathy and helping them understand that difficult times in an organisation are not challenges you have to avoid; they are opportunities for growth.
When you understand that empathy can be developed, you also understand that caring well doesn’t always mean caring more. With that in mind, Eve Ekman, a social worker and a behavioural scientist who studies contemplative practices such as meditation, has developed trainings in which “emotional balance” is the goal: people learn not how to become more or less empathic but, rather, how to adjust their empathy to account for self-compassion as well as concern for others. The biologist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard describes meditating himself into a state of pure emotional empathy — and nearly collapsing in anguish. For relief, he brought himself into a state of empathic concern.
Few of us are monks, but early research suggests that tactics similar to Ricard’s can make empathy sustainable — especially “metta,” or “compassion meditation”. This practice involves focusing your attention first on yourself and then on other people and repeating expressions of goodwill toward them, such as “May you be peaceful” and “May you be safe from harm”. That may sound wacky, but compassion meditation can enhance your ability to connect with others and even change your brain in the process. It can be a powerful tool for people whose jobs require caring. In one study medical students who practiced compassion meditation reported stronger connections with their patients but fewer symptoms of depression than other med students did.
Strive to become more aware of how you empathise. The next time a colleague is upset, run an internal audit: To what degree did you take on the other person’s feelings rather than demonstrate goodwill or attempt to take your colleague’s perspective? It’s also important to practice tuning your caring, whether in the moment or, better yet, beforehand. If you know a tough conversation is coming up, try to “pre-regulate” yourself with a few minutes of mindfulness. Instead of getting sucked in by another’s feelings, focus on what you want for your colleague in the long term and how you can help achieve that.
Our tumultuous times have saturated organisations with anxiety and exhaustion. Employees of all types are burned out and desperately need empathy from their leaders. But leaders are burned-out too and may feel as if they’re pouring from an empty cup. Fortunately, through the right practices — self-compassion, empathic tuning, and building healthy habits of mind — managers and employees alike can make their empathy sustainable. These practices are key to becoming the leaders most of us aspire to be. So when in doubt, find new ways to be there for yourself. In the long run, it’s the best way to be there for everyone else.
Image by lookstudio on Freepik.