The Case for Compassion

A new Korn Ferry report explains how compassion is a key part of empathy we often overlook.

Amelia Haynes

Associate Researcher, Korn Ferry Institute

In the past year, have you had a chat with a manager or colleague where you could tell they understood your challenges, but didn’t connect with you emotionally, and you felt alone in your hardship? Or how about a conversation where you could tell they felt your pain, but it quickly became about their struggle instead of your story?  

Although the recent crises have underscored the power of empathetic leadership, the above examples of incomplete empathy have become all too familiar in the past months. They have left many of us feeling unseen, unheard, or alone—if not all three.  

Empathy has three slightly, but crucially different dimensions: cognitive empathy, sympathy, and compassion. Each dimension activates different regions of the brain, yielding different kinds of behavior. Yet, despite their specialized knowledge and competencies, many executives do not fully appreciate the true complexity of empathy. This is often because the interpersonal dynamics of leadership—understanding, empathy, listening skills—are less developed.

But when we do develop our empathetic skills, compassion tends to be the key part of the empathy puzzle that we too often overlook. After all, many conceptualizations of empathy tend to be incomplete, focusing on one of its components over others. And those that do often concentrate on sympathy—feeling with rather than feeling for. This can often lead to sympathy fatigue, in which our brains will short-circuit to protect ourselves from secondary trauma. Sympathy fatigue, as research shows, is common among first responders and healthcare workers facing chronic exposure to traumatic events—a trend that increased exponentially during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

True empathy, however, requires a combination of these components—and in the right balance. And the most effective, empathetic leaders pay attention to the nuances of empathy, actively working to develop their empathetic and interpersonal skills across all dimensions.

In our latest report, The Case for Compassion, the Korn Ferry Institute looks at how actively practicing compassion can help executives become more effective leaders by building deeper, and more meaningful relationships. Relying solely on either cognitive empathy or sympathy can be misguided, misinterpreted, or just simply miss the mark. On the other hand, bridging the two can help leaders listen, imagine, and empathize all at once—and find the more helpful compassionate response.

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