What is Ethical Leadership?
Professionalism in the Workplace

Empathy + Compassion = Ethical Leadership: Here’s Why

 Building an Ethical Workplace Culture 

Leaders should be empathetic and compassionate to set an ethical tone at the top. Absent these characteristic traits of behavior, it would be difficult for leaders to get employees to follow and commit to the goals of an organization. After all, who would voluntarily choose to work for a leader who doesn’t care about their needs? There should be no doubt that empathy and compassion are essential ingredients of workplace ethics.

What is Empathy?

Empathy builds strong relationships, as does compassion, yet differences exist between the two. Empathy, at its most basic level, is the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experiences of others. Empathy addresses the need to relate to and understand the needs of others. But it doesn’t necessarily lead to concrete actions by leaders. For that to happen, a leader must go one step further and use good judgment to address questions raised and resolve problems faced by employees.

It has been said that an empathetic person should walk a mile in someone else's shoes before judging them, and understand their experiences, challenges, thought processes, and so on. The full idiom is: Before you judge a man [or woman], walk a mile in his [her] shoes. In effect, it is a reminder to practice empathy. It’s like saying, “I feel your pain.”

Empathetic behavior tends to be an automatic response to someone else’s problems. There isn’t a lot of thought given to ways to help resolve challenging issues, unless the leader realizes an action should be taken to show empathy and make things better for the employee. Perhaps you have watched the television show, New Amsterdam. In it, the Medical Director, played by Ryan Eggold, always asks his doctors and staff, “How Can I Help?” This is his way of showing empathy and compassion.

What is Compassion?

Compassion is more constructive. It starts with empathy and then turns outward. The intent to help others underlies compassionate behavior. For example, if an employee is a parent of a child with disabilities and occasionally asks for time off to attend to the child’s needs, then a compassionate leader would grant such a request unless such requests have been abused.

Compassionate leaders get things done. A compassionate leader triggers other positive outcomes such as collaboration, trust, and responsible behavior. Compassionate leaders can be trained to elicit these behaviors and they can be developed with practice over time.

Writing about compassionate leadership, Rasmus Hougard, the founder and CEO of Potential Project, a global consulting and professional services firm, suggests that mindfulness is a key to developing compassion in leaders. It is a way of making people more self-aware. Increased self-awareness leads to intentional behavior and thoughtfulness in developing a plan of action. He suggests letting go of self-criticism and, instead, cultivating “self-talk that is positive.” The idea is to learn from one’s actions and reframe experiences to enhance compassionate leadership. The three simple steps to take are as follows.

  • Have more self-compassion.
  • Check your intention.
  • Adopt a daily compassion practice.


According to Sara Schairer, founder of Compassion It, a global social movement that inspires compassionate actions and attitudes, compassion makes us happier, healthier, and more attractive to others. To be a compassionate person means to be mindful of what’s going on around you, how it affects yourself and others, and what you can do to make things better. Schairer says that by adding compassionate visualizations and wishes to a meditation practice, you can center your mind on compassion toward others. Mindfulness is important in the workplace and strengthens one’s commitment to empathy and compassion.

Writing for the personal development website, Life Hack, Kyle Hart identifies 20 things only compassionate people would do. Here are the top ten things to do.

  1. Put other people’s needs above your own.
  2. Listen first, speak second.
  3. Never leave someone you care for, and always have their back.
  4. Forgive easily.
  5. Find something in common with everyone.
  6. Value people and experiences over money.
  7. Be kind to yourselves as you are to others.
  8. Be mindful of everything in your life.
  9. Understand that people have differences of opinion, and they express those in different ways.
  10. Bring out the best in others. Empathy & Compassion

Emotional Intelligence (EI)

There is a link between empathy and compassion, and the notion of having “emotional intelligence,” or EI. How we respond to our challenges, express our emotions, and interact with others is more than a gut reaction. Our responses are key skills we can use to make a difference in our lives and the lives of others. These skills inform EI and have been defined by Daniel Goleman, psychologist and best-selling author, as the ability to recognize and manage our own emotions as well as the ability to identify, understand, and influence the feelings of others. 

Having a high level of EI allows you to empathize with others, communicate effectively, and be both self and socially aware. Goleman identifies five components that are critical for EI:

  1. Self-Awareness. The ability to recognize what you’re feeling and understanding how your emotions and actions can affect others.
  2. Self-Regulation. Being able to regulate and manage the emotions you’re feeling while waiting for the appropriate time and avenue in how to express them.
  3. Emotionally intelligent people are motivated by things beyond money, fame, or success. They’re also able to understand and desire the need to fulfill their own inner needs and goals. 
  4. Having a high EI means being able to understand what others may be feeling and are going through and responding kindly and thoughtfully. 
  5. Social Skills. Social skills are vital to emotional intelligence. When you’re aware of how you’re feeling, what others are feeling, and able to communicate effectively, you’re ready to interact well with others. 

In providing workplace ethics advice, as I do on a regular basis, I always point out that understanding these components and putting them into action in the workplace can strengthen the role of a leader as a thoughtful, ethical person who employees want to follow.

Wellbeing of Others

Mike Robbins writes in his book, We’re All in This Together, that compassion can be described as “empathy in action.” He says that: “While empathy is about understanding and feeling the emotions of others, compassion is about wanting to contribute to their happiness and well-being. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it.” Robbins points out that work groups or “teams that intentionally and habitually show compassion to one another are more connected and successful. In operating with compassion, we’re demonstrating our care for each other in a specific, overt, and powerful way.”

The idea is if empathy and compassion play an important role in the workplace via leadership actions, then it should enhance workplace culture and strengthen the wellbeing of employees which, in turn, builds workplace loyalty.  

I have been writing and speaking about these issues increasingly and have devised a new way to look at workplace ethics that incorporates empathy and compassion with two additional ethical values —understanding and respect. I refer to it as the CURE model. More will be said about this in my Ethics Sage blog that will be posted on October 27, 2022.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on October 25, 2022. You can sign up for Steve’s newsletter and learn more about his activities on his website  (https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/) and by following him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.