Neuroscience of Leadership Speaker Consultant

Leading with Empathy vs Leading with Compassion

Being empathic is very draining emotionally and physically. Empathy often leads to inaction and avoidance.

One of the most popular buzzwords used in connection with leadership and sales training is “empathy.” Leaders and salespeople are frequently told to “Feel their pain.” Neuroscience research demonstrates that our brains do respond to pain in others in the same areas of the brain that react to our own painful stimuli. We can mirror others’ pain in our own brains, but we often don’t want to because it is exhausting and painful.

Leadership Empathy vs Compassion
However, simply feeling another person’s pain does not necessarily lead to action that helps relieve that pain.

More often, feelings of empathy lead to inaction since we try to avoid pain whenever possible. Healthcare workers, for example, encounter pain frequently in doing their jobs. That can often lead to burnout or emotional exhaustion. A wide range of studies found a high negative association between empathy and “compassion fatigue” among medical professionals. Specific training is now being done to help medical workers control empathetic reactions so they can focus better on helping and avoid burnout. By limiting personal empathy, they are better able to deliver compassionate care.

Compassion Leads to Action

Brain imaging studies have found that empathy activates the brain’s pain network. Empathy leads to strong emotions which often result in irrational decisions. In contrast, compassion activates the brain’s reward network. Compassion leads to relaxation and rational decisions. Using reason and logic to find solutions to the causes of pain in others can reduce our own pain, while stimulating useful action.

Instead of allowing our personal empathetic pain to paralyze us, we can replace that pain with the feelings of reward through compassionate action.

As leaders, understanding that internal feelings of pain from empathy can cause a mind-numbing impact on people is the key to diverting empathy into compassionate action and useful, positive solutions. Empathy is an automatic, emotional response. Compassion is the logical cure for that pain.

Can Pain Medication Block Empathetic Responses?

Inside the brain, physical pain and emotional pain share a very similar mechanism. Painkillers can dull both types of pain.

A study showed that both opioid pain medications and Tylenol reduced feelings of empathy.

That demonstrates that feeling the pain of others is real pain that the brain experiences. It is effectively decreased by those medications. Given the widespread use of pain relievers today, it is difficult for a large number of people to feel empathy.

Clearly, we recognize and react to the pain of others. Our brains have evolved to do that automatically. The question is whether those feelings of empathy are useful or helpful to those in pain. As demonstrated by healthcare workers, too much empathy can lead to work disruptions. A more effective response to others’ pain is to take action to relieve it.

With compassion, doctors or nurses understand their patients’ suffering.

They focus on what they can do to help. That is genuine compassion that leads to a positive emotional response. Seeking practical ways to help is more productive than simply sharing someone else’s pain.

Neuroscience Research Offers Insights into Emotional Reactions

Many common principles of leadership training are widely accepted as truth without any scientific evidence. Empathy is simply an emotional reaction of the brain to observations of pain in others. It is not an answer to relieving that pain. Understanding how and why empathy exists helps leaders find ways to examine that emotion and use it to discover solutions with clarity. That is the power of Neuroscience in leadership. Through understanding based on science, leaders can act to provide effective guidance to motivate stronger action.

Howie Milstein Terry, you exemplify the power of slowing down, looking at scientific evidence, and basing our behaviors on rational thinking vs. following the subconscious brain. Thank you, as always, for helping me get control of the sometimes (often?) baloney that comes with simply being human, endowed with a brain that doesn’t always serve us or others most functionally. ~ Howie Milstein, Vistage Chair, Author, and CEO, The Institute of Stop Taking Yourself So Seriously
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