With Martin G. Moore

Episode #135

When Empathy Becomes Sympathy: What’s the difference?

Is there such a thing as “too much empathy”? Despite what many pundits say, I believe that there’s a place for almost limitless empathy in a leader. The more you have, the better you’ll be able to lead your people.

The risk is that weak leaders often allow their empathy to devolve into sympathy, which is a very different thing.

If you combine empathy with the right leadership behaviours – strength of character and uncompromising standards – it will build the foundations for everything you need to do as a leader.

In this episode, I take a critical look at the nexus between empathy and sympathy. If you’re aware of this distinction, you’re more likely to resist the temptation to become a weak leader who rationalises, avoids, and freezes when faced with difficult choices.

Generate Your Free
Personalized Leadership Development Podcast Playlist

As a leader, it’s essential to constantly develop and improve your leadership skills to stay ahead of the game.

That’s why I’ve created a 3-question quiz that’ll give you a free personalized podcast playlist tailored to where you are right now in your leadership career!

Take the 30-second quiz now to get your on-the-go playlist 👇

Take The QuizTake The Quiz


Episode #135 When Empathy Becomes Sympathy: What’s the difference?

I’ve heard a few people say over the last couple of months that leaders can have too much empathy. Well for me, I’m not so sure about that. I think there’s a place for almost limitless empathy in a leader. The more you have, the better you’ll become.

The risk is that some leaders can allow their empathy to devolve into sympathy, which is a very different thing. If you combine empathy with the right leadership, behaviours and disciplines, it’ll give you a platform for everything you need to do as a leader, and you won’t allow the dangerous decline into sympathy.

Here, we’ll take a critical look at the nexus between empathy and sympathy and explore the upside and downside of this. It’s important to be aware of this distinction so that you don’t become a weak leader who avoids, vacillates, and freezes when faced with difficult choices.

  • Outlining the dangers of talking about any single attribute in isolation.

  • Explore the differences between sympathy and empathy.

  • A brief exploration on why boundless empathy, balanced with commitment, discipline, and will, is the stuff that makes great leaders.

Why is talking about any single attribute in isolation dangerous?

You may have heard me in the past railing against the virtue signalling advice that comes from many leadership experts. The whole leadership discourse seems to have evolved into a discussion on desirable leadership attributes, which are connected to personal values and behaviours.

We talk about humility, transparency, authenticity, fallibility, courage, integrity. There’s nothing wrong with this per se. All of these attributes are desirable, noble and worthwhile, and when we hear them, we feel the warm glow of righteousness. We identify with the undeniable and compelling logic. We’re motivated towards self-improvement. We convince ourselves this is who we are, and then we do absolutely nothing. While this virtue signalling is an aspirational goal for many leaders, it’s also often used as a cynical tactic by unscrupulous and self-interested individuals to cover their tracks. The first instinct of a narcissistic or sociopathic person is to cloak themselves in righteousness.

This reminds me of an excellent book that I haven’t read for many years. M Scott Peck wrote the 1978 classic, The Road Less Travelled, which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide. I found his second book even more intriguing. It was called People of the Lie. As a psychiatrist in private practise Peck became intensely interested in the study of human evil. If this sort of stuff interests you, it’s really worth a read. But although many people appear outwardly to have high moral standards and values, they use this to disguise their rampant self-interest, and this is not even necessarily conscious. They disguise it from themselves as much as others, but I digress.

As much as strong personal attributes, values and behaviours are absolutely essential, talking about them in isolation, can be misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Let’s just look at a couple of examples.

Example 1: Humility

Humility is awesome, right? I’ve even seen articles on LinkedIn that say “only hire humble people”. No one can argue with the fact that humility has its place. But, is it awesome? Maybe. But it depends on what else is going on for that humble individual. Humility, when paired with decisiveness and strength, is an amazingly valuable quality, that enables human connection and collegiality. But humility, when paired with indecisiveness, can lead to uncertainty, lack of confidence and a passive defensive culture. So is humility good? Well, it can be, but like a lot of things in life, it depends.

Example 2: Fallibility

An awesome attribute for a leader, right? No one can argue with it. Well, once again, maybe. Fallibility when paired with competence, is incredibly powerful and adds to a leader’s ability to bring out the best in their people. But fallibility when paired with incompetence, is disastrous. People lose their confidence quickly. No one wants to work for an incompetent leader, no matter how easily showing fallibility comes to them.

The moral of the story is once again, think about it. Question everything. Don’t take virtue signals for granted, just because you feel as though you should, and there is social pressure to do so. Never lose your inquiring mind and don’t believe other people’s bullshit, much less your own.

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Let’s start with a dictionary definition and work from there. Empathy is defined as, “The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another”.

Put simply, empathy is your capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and to see a situation from their perspective. This is a skill that we all possess to some degree, but very few people can do this particularly well. “What does this mean for me?” always presses on our psyches much more urgently than “What does this mean for the other guy?”. But the key point is that empathy describes an ability and a capacity to understand another person.

Sympathy on the other hand, is defined as, “The fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.” Part of this definition is the implicit assumption that sympathy generates favour or approval. It goes beyond empathy in that the ability to understand morphs into the need to support and solve. Therein lies the difference.

Empathy, is simply your capacity to understand another individual’s perspective, whereas sympathy implies favourable treatment based on you identifying with that perspective. Super dangerous.

I just want to talk through a couple of scenarios here to help bring this distinction to life.

Scenario one: The dying parent

When you get into your late forties, as I may have just done, only 10 or so years ago, your parents start to reach the end of the road. If it hasn’t happened already, at some point in your leadership career, a direct report is likely to come to you to tell you that one of their parents is terminally ill and doesn’t have long to live.

It’s what you do then that matters. When Jane comes to you with this news, as a strong and empathetic leader, your response might go something like this,

“Hey Jane, I really feel for you. That is awful. I’ve been through it myself. I know that no matter how expected or inevitable it is, it always comes as a shock. Just know that from my side, you need to make this your number one priority. You’ll never get this time back and I’d hate to see you live with any regret when it’s so easily avoidable. Just take whatever time and space you need. Everything will still be here when you feel ready to return full time. You know what’s important to your team at the moment, so work out a plan to make sure there are no gaps while you go off and deal with this. And if you need help with this, I’m happy to get in and help you. But beyond that, don’t worry about work. This is a great opportunity for you to get one of your potential successes to step up and fill the gaps while you deal with this”.

Here’s what just happened as an empathetic leader:

  • I’ve seen the world through Jane’s eyes.

  • I’ve demonstrated that I understand the dilemma she’s facing about balancing the pressing needs of her job, with her personal longing to spend time with her dying parent.

  • I’ve offered a solution to bridge the gaps that will form during her absence.

  • I’ve given Jane comfort that she has as much time and space as she needs to deal with her personal circumstances.

  • I’ve also made sure that the opportunity to build capability below her isn’t squandered

I’ve had these conversations numerous times and often, I’ve got to tell you, I have become misty-eyed myself as I’ve listened to a story of what someone is going through. But it doesn’t stop me from doing what’s right, for the individual and for the company.

If, for example, Jane blows up and starts yelling at someone in the office one day, an empathetic leader will pull her aside and say something like this, with all the empathy they can muster, of course.

“Hey Jane, I know that what you’re going through is incredibly tough, but if you choose to be in the office, you’ve got to be able to keep it together. If you can’t, it’s going to be a problem. I’ve already said that you can take as much time as you need, so please don’t come back until you feel as though you’re really ready to do so. Otherwise it hurts the team and it’s no good for you either. That’s not who you are. If you need any other support, let me know and I’ll try and find the right channels for you”.

Now that’s firm, it’s empathetic and it’s reasonable.

What happens if I let that morph into sympathy? I make allowances for how Jane behaves and performs. Sympathetic bosses excuse bad behaviour under circumstances like this. Instead of holding the grieving individual to account for their choices and actions, they do something very different. Instead of going to Jane, they go to the team.

“Hey guys, I know Jane just screamed at you, but you have to understand her position. She’s going through a lot right now and you’ll just have to bear with her”. And when she’s not doing her job? “Well you know, Jane’s going through a lot right now so we just have to make allowances for her”. And when Jane’s project fails? “Well you know, Jane’s going through a lot right now, so we just have to make allowances for her”. You get the picture.

Scenario 2: The chronic under-performer

Occasionally you’ll run into someone who for one reason or another simply can’t meet the minimum acceptable standard that you’re setting for the performance of your team.

Let’s call this individual, Larry. Larry either doesn’t have the capability to do the job he’s being paid to do, or he’s simply choosing not to do it. Generally it is a choice, conscious or otherwise.

As a strong leader, you’ve already satisfied yourself that you’ve done everything you can for Larry. You’ve made sure he has appropriate resources. You’ve made it clear what success looks like. You’ve set realistic targets. You’ve coached and supported Larry. You’ve backed him in cross team skirmishes. You’ve given him role clarity and freedom of decision-making. You’ve given him the space he needs to execute on his accountabilities. You’ve given him all the feedback he could ever want, and probably then some, to understand how his performance is not measuring up to expectations. And still, Larry can’t seem to make it. There’s only one course of action here.

As an empathetic leader, you say to him,

“Hey look, Larry, we’ve been working on your performance for some time now, and it’s pretty clear to both of us, that you’re not where you need to be. We’ve spoken about the fact that I can’t make exceptions for the minimum performance standards we’re setting for the team. It will just let everyone down. I wish it were different, but for one reason or another, you simply aren’t able to perform in this role. I don’t have any choice, but to terminate your employment. I really hope you find a role that suits you better and I’ll do everything I can to help you secure that role”.

Let’s put a sympathetic leader in the same scenario.

For a start, the sympathetic leader is very unlikely to have done what they should have done to provide an environment for Larry that’s conducive to his performance. It’s really unlikely that the sympathetic leader will have given Larry good feedback and clarity of purpose. It’s more likely that when Larry hasn’t performed, the sympathetic leader has found a rationalisation or an excuse for him, and ignored his underperformance.

When it becomes so obvious and inevitable that Larry really has to leave the organisation, by the way after many more months of pain than the empathetic leader would tolerate, the sympathetic leader can’t push the button.

Instead, their sympathies dominate their thinking. They’ll focus on poor old Larry’s personal circumstances. Larry has a mortgage. Larry has kids in private school. Larry is 52 and may find it hard to get another job.

If this stuff doesn’t tug at your heartstrings, then you need to have a good hard look at yourself, because we should all feel for people who are in this position.

As an empathetic leader, you can’t help but feel other people’s pain. That’s what empathy means. I don’t want to sound cruel, but this is not your problem. Like all of us, every choice that Larry has made, has brought him to where he is today. For all of us, every decision we make, big and small, accumulates to put us where we are.

I recommend until the age of 30, there’s plenty of leeway for us. We all do dumb shit in our 20’s. The male adult brain isn’t even fully formed until it’s in its mid 20’s. I know many of our female listeners would contend that it is sometimes much later than that. But by the age of 30, I think that you are where you are much more because of your choices than because of your circumstances. Privilege and luck in the genetic lottery play a huge role, don’t get me wrong. But Larry, with access to education, living in a free society, has to start taking personal accountability, or not if he chooses not to. But he will suffer the consequences of those choices regardless.

The fact that he’s not performing is Larry’s choice, not yours. The bottom line is if you’re a leader who lets sympathy dominate, Larry probably gets to stay despite the fact that he can’t do the job he’s paid to do. When that happens, you create a cultural dynamic. You signal to the team that Larry’s performance is good enough. The really good performers get jack of the low standards and they look for other employment options.

Larry plods on, the good people leave, and your team is a backwater for anyone who doesn’t really want to work to a high standard. Is this the “people before profits” mantra that we spoke about a few weeks ago in action?

You may not see it that way when your sympathy for Larry dominates. You may be thinking Larry deserves a place there. But how about all of Larry’s teammates when he’s letting them down? How about the negative impact on the organisation when your team doesn’t perform? A leader who is even remotely competent, isn’t going to let that happen. But sometimes sympathy is pretty hard to shake off.

Is there such a thing as too much empathy?

When people say that, I think they’re making the point that sympathy, and the dark side that comes with it, is a result of having too much empathy.

I like to think of empathy and sympathy differently. I don’t want any leader to ever think that they have enough empathy. Empathy is one of the foundational requirements for building trust. The greater the empathy, the easier trust will come, in both directions. If you become better and better at recognising, understanding, managing, and using emotions, that will undoubtedly make you a better leader. It’s what we call emotional intelligence or EQ.

Can you ever have too much of this? I think not.

As you build your EQ over time, how do you stop it from degenerating into the sympathy that damages you, your team and your organisation? A large part of this is your leadership philosophy and approach.

  • You choose to put respect before popularity.

  • You hold your people to account for their performance no matter what.

  • You believe in people’s agency and their freedom to make choices and decisions on their own.

  • You take your duty of care to the organisation and your people very, very seriously.

If you don’t feel as though you have this philosophy, this is where you need to start.

I sometimes say to people who are very uncomfortable giving feedback, “go and find Episode 6; The Psychology of Feedback of No Bullsh!t Leadership and put it on loop in your car. Play it continuously until it becomes second nature to you.”

You have to have the right approach and philosophy first, before you will take action and do anything else.

Beyond that, it’s the strength of will and the discipline you need to put this into practise every day. This is a learnable skill. It just means you need to make better choices. Confront rather than avoid. Strive to improve rather than accepting mediocrity and complacency. Take a risk instead of seeking comfort and safety.

Over time, your empathy will become boundless, but as long as you’re strong enough to do the right thing, you’ll do it even better understanding what it means for all the people involved.


  • Episode #6 The Psychology of Feedback – Listen Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Enrol Now

  • Explore other podcast episodes – Here

  • Take our FREE Level Up Leadership Masterclass – Start now

  • Leadership Beyond the Theory- Learn More


Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Subscribe to the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast

  • Leave us a review on Apple Podcasts

  • Repost this episode to your social media

  • Share your favourite episodes with your leadership network

  • Tag us in your next post and use the hashtag #nobsleadership