Cutting Off Empathy

An exploration of the risks of empathy, from a designer’s point of view.

What is empathy and why is everyone in the business world trying to build it as a skill?

Empathy is not a new term, but it has certainly grown in popularity since the wave of design-thinking advocates joined the business world in the 1990s. Design-thinking is a process and a way of working that is based on the idea of empathetic design, which, as promoted by the design community, has promised to help solve “wicked problems” and create solutions that are decidedly human-centered in nature. Those are admirable claims and as a designer myself, I do believe that design can provide powerful outcomes, but I also believe in its limitations.

Relevant change at scale does not occur because of some external intervention by a team of designers. It is an integrated effort that requires the collective best work of many different people, from many different backgrounds, and with many different skill sets. Contrary to what many design-thinking advocates would lead you to believe, not everyone should be a designer and design isn’t the only solution to every problem. Even so, empathy is often considered to be an important mindset for everyone to operate with to create meaningful impact. However, I actually believe this may create more problems than it solves and that compassion is a better mindset to pursue.

Compassion over empathy may sound like a distinction without a difference, but here’s what we’ve learned.

Many would argue that empathy allows for a deep emotional understanding of people’s needs to inspire them — transforming their work, their teams, and even their organization at large — and thus they unlock the capacity for truly creative innovation. That sounds lovely, but I would challenge the ability of most people, designers included, to truly get to a place of such depth and emotional understanding. Empathy allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. In theory, with empathy, we can feel the emotions a problem creates for others. The reality is that human beings are incredibly complex and their state of being is formed by many experiences that we cannot possibly replicate, which would indicate that attempting to feel as they do could be an exercise in futility. And even if we (everyday people, not psychoanalysts or trained ethnographers) could realistically understand and experience someone else’s emotions at a deep level, what can we do with that? And, more importantly, what effect do those emotions have on us as the problem-solvers?

In a recent scientific study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany, Olga Klimecki (lead researcher) found that deep empathy could foster “emotional burnout.” Essentially, too much empathy causes our negative emotions to increase, creating real stress and complicating our path forward. While there are certainly professions trained to move from empathy to action, expecting this leap from everyone is not only unfair, but unrealistic. Compassion offers a key difference. Compassion is an emotional state in which we are compelled to help the person in need. Compassion integrates emotional understanding and an action-orientation, which allows us to more easily moderate how we interface with the emotions themselves.

Simply put, compassion allows us to be sensitive to one’s emotional state while acting with rational, consistent judgment to help them.

How does this apply to organizations who want to create impact at scale?

As people in an increasingly complex world, we must push ourselves to move from great to incredible. We cannot afford to lack consistency in moving our work to action. In order to do this at scale, our effort must be integrated and include everyone across an organization. Deploying empathy as the mindset of choice risks chaos and inaction while compassion provides consistency in our understanding of others and an action orientation. There are many examples of incredible leadership, products, innovation, and more, but, the question we face is whether these are happening by accident or with purpose and a clear sense of their long-term positive impact. I would go further to ask if we are truly enabling the most people possible to have the capacity to assess, question, and change the status quo with purpose. Again, as a member of the design community, I would argue that our vague promotion of empathy is actually counter-productive to that idea. We have left many stuck in empathetic quicksand instead of encouraging the awareness and moderation that comes with compassion.

When we lead and operate from a place of compassion, we create the conditions for personal, relevant, and actionable experiences that are consistent and sustainable because everyone involved is engaged in rational, sensitive, and creative co-creation. As compassion drives conversation, collaboration, and creativity, we quickly see its advantages over the perpetual cycle of observation without action that empathy risks delivering.

So, why is this important? If we recognize that consistent, sustainable change is critical to successful, growing organizations, we have to think about how to lead that change moving forward. While true disruption can be powerful from time to time, we would be wise to respect the power of the simple and subtle evolution of services and experiences. By integrating discovery as an input to developing compassion for those we serve, we can meet their needs in new and better ways over time.

As a business, your success relies heavily on the people who bring their ideas, ambition, and wits to deliver incredible customer experiences every day. As leaders, we should have a cultural obsession with people and customer centricity, both of which are unlocked by the power of compassion infused within you, your team, division, and organization.

Moving forward, consider cutting off empathy in favor of compassion.

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Your Growth Partner
April 26, 2024