The dark side of empathy

In recent months, empathy has been trending with millions of hits and views on the topic. Employees are demanding greater empathy to support their wellbeing, and leaders and organizations are responding by seeking to demonstrate cultures of compassion. But empathy comes with some rather significant problems argues sociologist Tracy Brower. When misused or misunderstood it can lead to poor choices, disempowerment, burnout, and arguably could even contribute to terrible phenomena like human trafficking.  


It’s important to know the focus on empathy is justified. A study by Catalyst found when leaders are more empathetic, people tended to be more innovative, engaged and likely to stay with their company. In addition, research published in Evolutionary Biology found cooperation increased when empathy was introduced into decision making processes.

And employee wellbeing was also related to empathy, according to a study by Qualtrics. The research found when leaders were perceived as demonstrating more empathy, people reported better mental health and said they could bring themselves more fully to their work.

But with all the positive data about empathy, it also has limitations. We want a society that is fair, objective and just—and for those ends, empathy isn’t the best moral guide. In fact, it can lead to poor decision-making.


Empathy can also lead to exhaustion or burnout if people identify too greatly with others’ suffering.


We also want a society in which people are kind and compassionate, who do the right thing and act constructively toward others. And while empathy is related to all of these, it is not the only fuel for these pro-social behaviors. Empathy is a good thing, but it isn’t everything—and it’s important to recognize the pitfalls, problems and unintended consequences that can come with it.

By definition, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. It is imagining what it’s like to be in another’s place and hypothesizing about what they may be thinking (cognitive empathy) or feeling (emotional empathy).

Unfortunately though, people have an easier time identifying with those who are more similar to themselves. Social science demonstrates that proximity is fundamental to relationships, and it has an effect on acceptance. The people you see more frequently and have more exposure to, are those you’ll tend to build stronger relationships with. You’ll tend to accept them more and you’ll have more empathy toward them. In addition, studies on friendship repeatedly demonstrate people have stronger ties with those with whom they share more in common.

All of this means that your empathy is likely to be greater for people you see more often and who are more similar to you. Empathy is subjective and therefore subject to bias. If you use empathy as a guide for decision making—caring about a person or group and using that care to make critical tradeoffs—it can lead to discrimination or a lack of objectivity toward others.

Seek exposure, contact and relationships with all kinds of people—especially those who are different from yourself and from whom you can learn. Ensure you weigh decisions not just based on who you know best, but on those who may also be less familiar to you.

The popularity of empathy has meant that many organizations are encouraging leaders and employees to be more empathetic toward others. When this also translates into a greater focus on people, kindness and compassion, there is little reason for skepticism. 


Research on begging by children finds when people give money to the children in some countries, they unintentionally contribute toward greater human trafficking,.


But an unintended consequence of an over-emphasis on empathy can making assumptions about others or failing to ask questions about their experiences. It can lead to conditions where people don’t have the opportunity to speak for themselves. If team members or managers believe they understand so fully they seek to solve issues for others—rather than providing resources and support so they can solve problems for themselves—it can be disempowering.

When it is misunderstood, empathy can also lead to a culture where people aren’t held accountable. Empathy can be defined as removing all obstacles or challenges. In reality though, it’s possible to understand someone’s situation and still ensure they own their choices and actions. Holding someone accountable demonstrates their contribution matters and their quality of work is important to the team and the organization. Empathy shouldn’t remove the positive ownership for choices and situations.

We can be skilled at guessing about what others are going through, but it’s also critical to check in, ask questions and seek understanding about someone’s experience without undermining their opportunity to explain for themselves. And it’s also critical to ensure they still have a sense of ownership for their behaviour and the outcomes they create.

Another challenge with empathy is that it tends to focus you on the immediate and to favor one or a few people over many. Research on begging by children finds when people give money to the children in some countries, they unintentionally contribute toward greater human trafficking, according to a study published in Child Development Research. Of course, the issue is complex, but it’s an example of how empathy can drive a choice in the moment, which may not align with what people would decide with more reasoned deliberation.

Or consider the leader who feels empathetic toward an employee who has challenges with childcare and requires less from that employee—with others having to pick up the slack. In this case, empathy solves problems for one person but puts a burden on others and creates the conditions for less equity and feelings of resentment.

Empathy is more like a laser than a more diffuse light. It provides focus and spotlight which can be helpful to a limited number of people or an immediate-term issue, but may limit the ability to pull back and make choices which are in the best interest of greater numbers of people or longer-term solutions.

When you’re making decisions, ensure you’re considering not just one person or a small group, but also equity for larger groups. And ensure you’re considering systems as a whole, rather than limited solutions which may have too-narrow outcomes or unintended consequences.


Empathy isn’t the best moral guide. In fact, it can lead to poor decision-making.


Empathy can also lead to exhaustion or burnout if people identify too greatly with others’ suffering. Of course, you want to offer support and kindness to others, but if you do this based on literally feeling what they are feeling and emotionally sharing their experience, you’ll quickly become overwhelmed.

In addition, if you’re not able to separate yourself from others’ pain, you may offer aid in a way that is fragmented or inconsistent—more when you have more energy and less when you don’t.

Instead of seeking a deep identification with others pain, you’ll be able to offer greater assistance by recognizing when people are struggling and offering compassion without taking on emotional burdens yourself.  

Empathy has undeniable positive effects for people, relationships and business. But you’re also wise to express empathy in ways that avoids negative outcomes.

You can ensure you’re being objective and empowering and making choices for the greatest good that maintains your own energy—at the same time you’re expressing care, concern and compassion. By finding this balance, you’ll have a powerfully positive impact. 

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