When leaders and individuals care deeply about one another they also care about the mission and the quality of the collective outcome.
Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps man ahead of them."
- D.C. Fontana
Humans are social animals that crave belonging and acceptance. Empathy, compassion and sympathy are three caring behaviors, which evolved as the primary means to bind people together. They are at the root of what it means to be social. We are wired for compassion, and from academic research we know that compassionate acts actually cause dopamine, a feel good hormone, to be released into the blood stream. So, compassion has a built in reward in the brain’s pleasure center. It is that important.
These behaviors matter deeply to business because what goes around comes around. In organizations where leaders and individuals care deeply about one another (empathy and compassion), you find they also care about the mission and the quality of the collective outcome. Since business depends on collective outcomes, these behaviors are vital as they fulfill deep underlying needs that eventually bind an individual to his/her leaders, and therefore the organization. Soft skills, especially the caring ones, are not yet accepted as management tools, so work environments are frequently managed in socially insensitive ways leading to unhealthy and protective climates. This is easy to avoid if you use the caring tools most people were born with.
What is the difference between the three of these? Let’s take a quick look.
Sympathy is the capacity to feel for the other person, by understanding their pain. In this case you have not lived through it, and therefore do not have the depth of feelings associated with empathy. Your understanding must be non-judgmental. It is the ability to probe and understand a situation so you can assess it without the intent to judge the other person, but to help them if possible. Here you understand the suffering and show that you care by expressing sorrow for them.
Empathy “is the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another's shoes” (from Wikipedia). In this case, you have lived through/experienced what the other individual is suffering through. Literally, you feel their pain. That makes it easy to connect with them because you share suffering in common. By noticing and expressing heartfelt concern, the other individual is comforted, and if you sincerely care about them, your bond strengthens.
Compassion is the heart’s response to suffering. Compassion, unlike empathy and sympathy involves providing some type of help, not just acknowledging the other individuals suffering, so you are doing even more to alleviate their pain.
Empathy and compassion strengthen the degree of connectedness helping unite an organization. To IT, these are critical. As I have noted many times, great IT outcomes are directly related to the degree of social cohesion that individuals, teams, and cross-functional units achieve. Based on my personal experience, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are critical emotional skills that fall high on the list of highly desirable prosocial behaviors, but their productive impact is neither seen nor measured. These emotions are subtle, working their magic quietly so they are neither valued, nor understood.
As a leader, you must always notice any form of suffering in others. Become familiar with your employees normal mood so that you can sense changes. This is a vital tool because workers who feel management cares about them are more deeply engaged. Moreover, the number one reason people leave companies is most often because they are not appreciated. By caring, you prove they matter to you, and the organization.