When I Grow Up: 10 Examples of Things Leaders Can Do to Show Compassion




“Hey! – It’s Sophia here again! I am a few weeks older since we last spoke, and with all the wisdom of foresight and hindsight that brings. Even though I cannot speak yet, I can type about 80 words a minute on my Mom’s cellphone. It’s been great to follow SHRM’s "When I Grow Up" campaign and I wanted to share some thoughts on empathy and compassion. I can’t resist the urge to give you a real-world example from my own short life. Empathy is when my parents take a small spoon taste of puree’d peas and try to convince me that I will love it as much as they do. Compassion, on the other hand, is swapping out the peas for Apple Strawberry puree! Trust me, there is a massive difference between empathy and compassion in my new world.”

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” There is a lot of discussion about empathy and leadership, but the key differentiator in compassion vs. empathy is the inclusion of the words “together with a desire to alleviate it.” 

2500 years ago, Plato shared his Allegory of the Cave in Book 7 of the Republic. “We have brought you into the world to be rulers of the hive, kings of yourselves and of the other citizens, and have educated you far better and more perfectly than they have been educated, and you are better able to share in the double duty. Wherefore each of you, when his turn comes, must go down to the general underground abode, and get the habit of seeing in the dark. When you have acquired the habit, you will see ten thousand times better than the inhabitants of the cave, and you will know what the several images are, and what they represent because you have seen the beautiful and just and good in their truth. And thus our State which is also yours will be a reality, and not a dream only, and will be administered in a spirit unlike that of other States, in which men fight with one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good.”

Plato invites us all to find the best version of ourselves, to take a step into the light and to help others. In a word – compassion. So, with that said, here are some practical suggestions and metaphors for how today’s leaders and HR professionals can move from empathy to compassion – particularly during these times of pandemic.

  • Empathy (E): I understand that work is a challenge with two small children at home.
  • Compassion(C) I understand and I offer to babysit or find some childcare help for you.
  • E: I know you’ve been furloughed and feel the stress that you feel
  • C: I feel the stress and have a friend who is hiring, let me introduce you.
  • E: I can imagine what it’s like to have a family member who’s been infected.
  • C: I can imagine and let me dig deeper into our benefits offerings and get back to you.
  • E: I realize that working from a small home limits you to a chair instead of a home office.
  • C: I realize and let me rent you a touch-down workspace near your home.
  • E: I know you are juggling lots of work from home challenges – kids, parents, space, wifi
  • C: I’m going to schedule at 60 percent until things are done.
  • E: I appreciate that you have some community needs in your area that you need to tend to.
  • C: I am open to a new 4x10 (4 days, 10 hours each) schedule so you can do your service.
  • E: I am so sorry your spouse was laid off.
  • C: I am so sorry your spouse was laid off, I have a friend in that industry, let me introduce you.
  • E: Sorry to hear about your student loan debt coming due.
  • C: There is a company I work with who specializes in finance.
  • E: Sorry to about your Dad’s illness, I went through something similar with my parents.
  • C: My spouse is a nurse, let me connect you, I know she will have some helpful advice.
  • E: I am sorry to hear your kids are having trouble in their school
  • C: I am sorry to hear - your kids are great – can I write a recommendation to help get them admitted to private school?

We will be known forever by the tracks we leave In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity. – Mary T. Lathrop     

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. - Plato


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