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Why Empathy is not Sympathy: The Heart of Leadership in Crisis

Still not clear on how empathy may differ from sympathy?

Why Empathy is not Sympathy: The Heart of Leadership in Crisis

By now, most of us have probably established some sort of routine, as we are approaching five weeks in isolation. In the best of scenarios, routine and structure are providing a buffer against the psychological toll being taken. However, for some it’s not enough. We all have our own unique circumstances and struggles that we are facing, with many experiencing various mental health difficulties,1 challenging home situations,2 and financial uncertainties.3 Additionally, as the pandemic evolves, many are now dealing with the added pressure of caring for sick family members. As a species, the longer we spend in isolation, the longer we must learn to deal with these radical new life circumstances. More than ever, leaders need to be able to relate to, and set policies, based on the experiences of their employees. Many leaders may believe they are being empathetic, when they are really expressing sympathy or kindness; empathy moves beyond understanding and compassion for others; it is being able to meaningfully relate to the experiences of others - “the ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that to guide actions. That makes it different from kindness or pity.”4

Still not clear on how empathy may differ from sympathy? Let’s look at an example of what empathy is not… In early March, when the U.S. was seeing its first cases of COVID-19, a correspondent for NBC News, asked President Trump about the psychological toll: “Nearly two hundred dead, fourteen thousand who are sick, millions, as you witnessed, who are scared,’ Alexander said.5 ‘What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?’ Trump shot back, ‘I say that you’re a terrible reporter, that’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people.’”6 The President’s response exposed his obliviousness to the scope of the disease, and ignorance to the “spiraling anxiety [and fears] among Americans.” Almost any other response would have been better and more empathetic than Trump’s.

For many, the challenges faced by the pandemic will be obstacles to manage personally and individually, but for leaders with teams, the circumstances require increased vigilance and expressions of empathy. Leaders are uniquely responsible for their teams, and right now, more than ever before, the productivity, efficiency, engagement, and motivation levels in employees, are being impacted because physiological needs are threatened.7 More than ever before, it is important for leaders to be able to relate to their employees, responding to challenges with flexible policies, processes, and behaviours that uniquely support their employees.

Let’s consider some experiences and circumstances affecting people that may expose the biases some leaders will be vulnerable to:

- Job and Financial Security – As a leader, more than likely you are in a position of greater job security and financial well-being, whereby any impacts to your income, might not significantly affect your ability to continue to pay your mortgage and feed your family. Employees in lower ranks of an organization may be in a different situation. When peoples’ physiological needs are challenged, they descend down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and potentially become consumed by basic concerns, rather than thinking creatively and innovatively in their jobs (one of many positive effects experienced when people feel job security).8 Further, researchers and economists alike are warning about the pandemic exposing, and even widening, income inequality.9,10

- Home Circumstances – Although not necessarily true for all, many senior or tenured leaders may not have the added stressor of young children at home right now, where there is an expectation of continuing to fulfill your regular job duties while potentially parenting or homeschooling at the same time.11 While some are challenged with childcare, there are other circumstances affecting employees’ abilities to perform at their best. For example, consider families where one partner has lost their job, or more extreme circumstances like caring for sick or disabled children or elderly, or those in abusive relationships (whereby the worst possible thing is to be quarantined 24 hours of the day with an abuser).12 While many may have been able to manage these challenges prior to the pandemic, “stay at home” policies and restrictions have more than likely added layers of hardship.

- Work Environment – Some of your team members may not have access to a dedicated home-office space, or may not have the same technology and equipment they have at work. These limitations can affect productivity, efficiency, and engagement. A couple of things to be on the lookout for… take note of high-performance employees who are seemingly falling behind or delivering lower performance. It’s also important to recognize that former “star-performers,” may in fact be some of the hardest hit, as their work may be tightly coupled with their personal identity (providing them with a sense of belonging and meaning).

- Increased mental distress – For weeks, psychologists have been warning of the looming psychological crisis that will follow COVID-19.13 We know that as unemployment levels rise, so does suicide,14 however, the effects of the pandemic have the potential to reach all of us (not just those directly impacted) as the links between prolonged confinement, social isolation, and loneliness are well-established; “A 2015 meta-analysis of the scientific literature by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues, determined that chronic social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%."15 Unsurprisingly, those that already struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental illnesses, will be tested on the limits of their strength. Research supports that those struggling with pre-existing mental health problems are more vulnerable to the negative psychological effects that quarantine brings.16 However, the confinement we are all experiencing causing reduced interaction with others, is also opening doors for those previously unaffected by anxiety or depression.17 A study conducted during the SARS outbreak in 2004, found that quarantined Toronto residents displayed symptoms of PTSD and depression.18 Feelings of anxiety and depression may not be something they are familiar with, and it’s understandable, as for many, this all feels unnatural in the context of the evolution of the human species.19 Leaders need to be extra aware of this in their teams. There is robust evidence “linking perceived social isolation with adverse health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, impaired executive function, accelerated cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function and impaired immunity at every stage of life.”20 Undoubtedly, leaders will be challenged dealing with the long-term effects of COVID-19, with some researchers already noting that it has the power to be even more traumatic than 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina because there is seemingly no end in sight: “[D]epriving people of their liberty for the wider good needs to be orchestrated carefully because the psychological impacts can be substantial and long lasting.”6,21

The above examples aren’t unique to those on your team; you may also be experiencing some of these challenges. On the contrary, you may not be experiencing any, and in fact, drawing strength from a stable job/income; embracing a slower pace; and enjoying the opportunities to reconnect with family. Whatever your scenario and personal experience, it shouldn’t change the leadership your team is getting from you.The burden of leadership is two-fold: Rising above your own experience to provide exceptional leadership to your team; and, taking on the challenges of your employees, and embracing them as part of your challenge in leading them, and your organization through uncertainty. For many employees, personal optimism and connecting to feelings of meaningfulness, will not provide enough resilience to overcome this period of time. It is not your responsibility to be able to fix all their problems, but it is your responsibility to ensure that you act with consideration and when possible, accommodate to give your team the best possible chance at providing the highest quality of work. Imagine that in the best of scenarios, work provides a sense of meaningful purpose and stability for someone that may not have otherwise had that in their lives.

1. Memo. (2020). Chinese student commits suicide in Saudi after being quarantined for coronavirus. Retrieved from

2. Westmarland., N, & Bellini., R. (2020). Coronavirus lockdown is a dangerous time for victims of domestic abuse – here’s what you need to know. The Conversation. Retrieved from

3. Sainato., M. (2020). 'Suddenly I have no paycheck': layoffs and cuts for workers rocked by coronavirus. The Guardian. Retrieved from

4. Krznaric., R. (2012). Six Habits of Highly Empathic People. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from

5. Edelman., A. (2020). Trump, promoting unproven drug treatments, insults NBC reporter at coronavirus briefing. Retrieved from

6. Wright., R. (2020). How Loneliness from Coronavirus Isolation Takes Its Own Toll. The New Yorker. Retrieved from

7. McLeod., S. (2007). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Simply Psychology. Retrieved from

8. Hopper., E. (2020). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs Explained. Thought Co. Retrieved from

9. Reeves., R. V., & Rothwell., J. (2020). Class and COVID: How the less affluent face double the risks. Brookings. Retrieved from

10. The Economist. (2020). American inequality meets covid-19. Retrieved from

11. Roder., N. (2020). Kids and WFH: Working From Home With No Childcare. Workfest by Zenefits. Retrieved from

12. Taub., A. (2020). A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide. The New York Times. Retrieved from

13. Faris., D. (2020). Coronavirus' looming psychological crisis. The Week. Retrieved from

14. Blakely, T. A., Collings, S. C., & Atkinson, J. (2003). Unemployment and suicide. Evidence for a causal association?. Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, 57(8), 594-600.

15. Miller., G. (2020). Social distancing prevents infections, but it can have unintended consequences. Science. Retrieved from

16. Sacks., E. (2020). Social distancing could have devastating effect on people with depression. News. Retrieved from

17. Kirkey., S. (2020). What a coronavirus quarantine could do to your mental health. National Post. Retrieved from

18. Hawryluck, L., Gold, W. L., Robinson, S., Pogorski, S., Galea, S., & Styra, R. (2004). SARS control and psychological effects of quarantine, Toronto, Canada. Emerging infectious diseases, 10(7), 1206.

19. Pennisi., E. (2011). How Humans Became Social. ScienceNOW. Retrieved from

20. Novotney, A. (2020). The risks of social isolation. Monitor on Psychology, 50(5). Retrieved from

21. Brooks, S. K., Webster, R. K., Smith, L. E., Woodland, L., Wessely, S., Greenberg, N., & Rubin, G. J. (2020). The psychological impact of quarantine and how to reduce it: rapid review of the evidence. The Lancet, 395(10227), 912-920.

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