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Competencies Leadership

How to Demonstrate Empathy and Compassion (Level-by-Level)

By Jon Spratt on May, 19 2020
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Jon Spratt

It’s certainly been a trying few months for most. And even as states and provinces in North America slowly begin to reopen, acting with empathy and compassion remains paramount for managers and fellow employees alike.

After all, a looming sense of uncertainty still reigns in the news we read every day, as to what the corporate world (and world at large) will look like when things actually return to some sense of pre-pandemic normal… and how long that will take.

So even as we slowly meander on the path back towards normalcy, compassion and empathy are vital behaviors in any corporate environment.

Within that framework, here are some behavioral examples and strategies to help keep your teams on track as we all ride out this storm together.

Breaking down empathy and compassion

HRSG has a 5-level competency called “Acting with Empathy and Compassion” that’s probably never been more relevant than it is now.

The competency is defined as, “Genuinely seeking to understand and respect others’ perspectives and emotions; encouraging a culture of compassion, empathy and support within and beyond the organization.”

Let’s explore it level-by-level to see how empathy and compassion can manifest itself in different circumstances.

Level 1: Seeks to understand and validate others’ perspectives and emotions.

Example Behavioral Indicator: Uses active listening skills to understand others’ thoughts and emotions.

Whether you’re a manager or an employee, the skill of active listening lets people know that they’re being heard.

The Mental Health Commission of Canada provides some excellent do’s and don’ts in this PDF handout.

Level 2: Exemplifies empathy and compassion in leading a team.

Example Behavioral Indicator: Keeps communication channels open with team members.

With your workforce dispersed and forced into home offices, the communication channels may have changed, but the principles have not: teams that communicate clearly and on a regular cadence are more effective.

A great way for managers to keep their communication channels open with each of their reports is to establish and maintain regular 1-on-1 meetings. In this Harvard Business Review article the author recommends that managers block regular time in their schedule, prepare discussion points ahead of time, and express gratitude regularly.

1-on-1s are not supposed to simply be a status update of where your report’s workload stands for the week – they are also an opportunity for reports to speak freely on successes and challenges that they feel in their role. And for managers, it’s a great chance to put those "level 1" active listening skills into practice.

Establishing a routine where employees know they have the opportunity to share as much as they’d like about work or their life outside of work is so important right now – after all, it’s not like they can wander over to your desk and shoot the breeze over a cup of coffee. So use your 1-on-1s as an ideal forum to exemplify empathy in the team that you're leading.


Level 3: Demonstrates empathy and compassion in difficult or complex situations.

Example Behavioral Indicator: Offers emotional support and/or tangible assistance to others experiencing difficulties at work or in their personal life.

At this level, we continue to move towards demonstrating empathy in trickier situations -- something that many managers can surely relate to by now. Note that the example behavioral indicator speaks to emotional support and offering tangible assistance.

Beyond their own health and wellbeing, employees are grappling with a whole host of concerns. At home, they may be trying to get their work done while tending for children that are usually at daycare or school. Their living situation may have changed. And outside of their immediate day-to-day existence, they may be anxious over the wellbeing of loved ones, their finances, and even the state of the economy as a whole.

That doesn’t mean that it falls on leaders to shoulder the burden of solving all of your employees problems. But at this level, acting with empathy and compassion may involve helping them navigate their issues at work, at home, or the intersection between the two.

The Government of Canada website offers some suggested statements that can help you work your way through these conversations, and might fall into that level 3 notion of demonstrating empathy. Here, we’ve highlighted a few:

  • “I don’t expect us to deliver as quickly or as much as usual under these circumstances. Right now, I expect…”
  • “If you have any questions or concerns, or if there’s anything affecting your well-being at work, I’m here to support you.”
  • “I know you might be feeling a range of emotions right now. Myself, I’ve been feeling….If you want to talk, I’m available.”
  • “Come and talk to me if you think you may need flexible work arrangements or leave from work for a reason related to the pandemic. We can discuss options regardless of your employment status.”


Level 4: Instills empathy and compassion in the organization’s culture.

Example Behavioral Indicator: Ensures that policies and procedures support empathy and compassion in the organization, removing systemic barriers.

At level 4, we start to move beyond individual conversations and into organizational empathy and compassion.

This can potentially be a tricky balancing act: leaders at high levels need to continue to drive the organization forward to ensure everyone’s continued success. At the same time, if its people aren’t feeling cared for, then their work output will probably reflect that.

So what kind of procedures can help support empathy and compassion across an organization? One example is what we’ve been doing at HRSG: holding a weekly company-wide meeting and checking in with each individual, as noted in this recent post by our CEO, Dr. Suzanne Simpson.

“Frankly, it's in our best interest to make sure that people feel comfortable,” she said. “The weekly check-in that we do on Monday mornings, there's a deliberate process that we go through and talk to each person: how are they doing from a business perspective, and how are they doing from a personal perspective.”

Dr. Simpson acknowledges that it might not be everyone’s prerogative to share, but the weekly check-in is an example of removing systemic barriers.

“Not everybody might feel comfortable in that kind of public forum, but it's setting the boundaries and saying 'this is our culture; if you need some help, reach out,'” she said.


Level 5: Promotes compassionate acts in the community.

Example Behavioral Indicator: Encourages emergent, bottom-up efforts for compassionate actions inside and outside the organization.

At level 5, we see compassion and empathy emerge as an outward-facing behavior – more than simply listening and demonstrating empathetic behaviors internally.

This could take the form of charitable donations: Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey made headlines recently by pledging $1 billion of his personal fortune to COVID relief efforts. But if you don’t have a billion dollars, that’s okay. Here’s a list of hundreds of companies that have pledged to COVID relief, in one form or another. 

A great compassionate leader goes beyond demonstrating empathy internally and actually fosters it among their organization and externally.

A little empathy goes a long way

A lot of people would suggest that empathy and compassion are some of the fundamental tenets separating good people from bad. The same could be said about the quality of a given organization and ultimately, its ability to retain its best talent as we push through this global shutdown that has been traumatic for many.

Leaders, managers, and employees all have a part to play in fostering an empathetic environment. But it starts at the top and trickles down to the lowest people on the totem pole. 

As Dr. Simpson noted in the aforementioned blog post:

“Leaders in a crisis must be able to put aside their own fears and anxieties. They must demonstrate courage and lead by example, showing that they are not asking people to do anything they are not prepared to do themselves.”


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