Leading with empathy is dangerously overrated

Written by Danielle Owen Whitford

There’s been a big emphasis of late on leading with empathy. Organisations are navigating unforeseen challenges, bringing the need to just “be human” into all aspects of work and life, to feel and be there for each other through tough times. The problem is, empathy can be exhausting!

How much can we walk in others’ shoes before it’s too much? At what point does leading with empathy overload and cripple the effectiveness of leadership? And, is there a more sustainable alternative?

“Taking on others’ emotions and problems leads to burnout. Compassion helps leaders diffuse issues and move on.”

In this article, we look at the neuroscience behind empathy, and explore why and how leading with compassion is a more sustainable alternative for you, your team, and your organisation.


What’s going on in your brain?


Studies show that the parts of the brain that activate when empathising with someone in pain are also associated with experiencing pain directly (anterior insula - AI, and anterior midcingulate cortex - aMCC). Feeling pain depletes dopamine levels - the feeling of reward/affiliation/pleasure. Similarly, when experiencing empathetic distress, our capacity to feel pleasure, motivation and reward are stunted.

“The phrase ‘I feel your pain’ is quite literal.”

Recurring episodes of empathetic distress causes chronic depletion of dopamine leading to emotional exhaustion, decreased sense of accomplishment, and depersonalisation — aka BURNOUT.

Functional brain imaging shows that some of the same regions of the brain by personal pain (left) and empathy over other’s pain (right).

Functional brain imaging shows that some of the same regions of the brain by personal pain (left) and empathy over other’s pain (right).



Compassion is feelings of warmth and genuine concern for others - paired with a motivation to help. It’s feeling for others, not with them. Unlike empathy, compassion actually increases brain activity involved in dopamine production.

Oxytocin-related processes associated with compassion enhance positive emotions in challenging situations. These positive emotions counteract the negative effects of empathy - helping to build resilience.

“Compassion doesn’t cause fatigue - it’s neurologically rejuvenating!”


Compassion helps leaders be more effective, without the burnout risk of empathy. For sustainable leadership, it’s essential to understand the difference between empathy and compassion to continue to support your people.

5 ways to lead with compassion

1. Commit to self care

Genuine compassion for others starts with compassion for yourself. It’s impossible to be there for others when your own balance is out of whack. Focus on self-care including: quality sleep, exercise, healthy diet, and taking regular breaks during the day.

Let go of damaging self-criticism and cultivate positive self-talk to focus on progress moving forward, not the mistakes of the past. Reframe setbacks as learning opportunities. Be there for yourself to be your best self for others.

2. Take a moment


If an employee is upset or a team situation requires your attention, take a moment, breathe, and get a handle on your own emotions first. Recalling our own anger or grief towards the situation, or similar ones you’ve experienced, can put you into a state of empathetic distress.

Try approaching from a genuine position of concern. Be thoughtful and reasonable, not emotional. This keeps you in a positive mindset, reduces neurological distress and burnout risk, helping yourself and others move forward. Mindfulness and meditation practice can help.

3. Forgive

People make mistakes. It happens. Adding to that stress doesn’t help you or your team. Forgiveness, on the other hand, promotes loyalty and strengthens your relationship with employees. Plus, carrying a grudge is actually bad for your heart, as it raises blood pressure. Forgiving lowers blood pressure for you and the person you’re forgiving.

These positive interactions can improve employee health and wellbeing, reducing sick days and turnover. When trust and loyalty are high and stress is low, employees are happier, more creative and productive.

4. Be open to different perspectives

Regardless of industry, businesses are made up of people from a variety of backgrounds. A narrow perspective can make people feel undervalued or ostracised. This can damage workplace culture, and the company itself.

According to McKinsey, companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to outperform the industry medians. Furthermore, studies show that inclusive teams make better business decisions 87% of the time.

Empathy can lead to cultural bias, as we can’t always relate to the views and experiences of those from different backgrounds. We can, however, approach people and situations objectively and rationally with compassion - keep an open mind, be thoughtful and reasonable, but not emotional.

5. Create a safe place to work


The workplace, whatever it looks like - physical/virtual/hybrid, should be a safe place. It should be a space where leaders and team members can share how they feel and speak up without fear. It’s not about plants, up-cycled furniture, and lots of cuddles… it’s about open and honest communication, and people feeling like people, not just employees.

Focusing on psychological safety is a great place to start. Speak to your people as a person, not just their “boss”. Talk in terms of other people’s interests. Approach conflict as an opportunity to collaborate with others and strengthen the team for the better. Ask questions, seek feedback - really listen to people, and take responsibility. And finally, measure safety in your workplace. What is measured can be actively and intentionally improved. Tools like Pioneera’s Indie can help.


Leading with empathy - putting yourself in others’ shoes. Empathy can lead to emotional distress, poor decision making, and burnout. This is bad for you and your team.

Leading with compassion - genuine concern for others, paired with motivation to help. Compassion helps leaders be more effective, without the burnout risk of empathy.

5 ways to lead with compassion:

  • Commit to self care

  • Take a moment

  • Forgive

  • Be open to different perspectives

  • Create a safe place to work

Final thoughts

Leading with empathy is dangerously overrated. It may seem like a good idea, but the emotional toll over time carries great risk. Leading with compassion empowers leaders and team members alike. It’s being motivated to help people and improve situations, with the ability to move on to fight another day. This approach gives you a clear sense of control that will benefit you, your team, and your organisation.

Indie is a great way to have compassion flow through your team and organisation, as she prompts you when it's time to take a break and how to show compassion to yourself and others. Indie helps build high performing teams, one step at a time, every day.


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