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The Newsletter | Edition 066
In our Off-White Papers, we provide practical guidance on how to respond to our rapidly-changing world. This newsletter explores those topics in real-time, with information and action steps on how to make progress now.
Spend a few minutes on TikTok or Twitter and you’ll soon realize that everyone’s become obsessed with empathy. It seems like an innocuous—maybe even beneficial—trend, but when we prize empathy this much, are we overlooking something else? Is there any harm in making empathy this trendy? And how do we harness empathetic energy into action, within our work lives and beyond?
  1. Engage with empathy, act with compassion, from Payal Pereira
  2. Embrace self-involved empathy, from Jillian Rosen-Filz
  3. Ensure psychological safety, from Osei Kwakye
And this week, our illustration from Nora Mestrich.


From Payal Pereira


Empathy in the corporate world is sometimes seen as a weakness because of the emotional burden and unconscious biases that it can create. However, using empathy to spark compassion, can be a powerful move because it involves making a deliberate choice to turn emotions into actions that can alleviate suffering.


Empathy is a core emotion for human connection. But as leaders, shouldering people’s emotions and sharing in their feelings can be draining. When unchecked, empathy can cloud judgment, create bias in our thinking and lead to poor decision making. Paul Polman, former CEO of Unilever, puts it this way: “If I led with empathy, I would never be able to make a single decision. Why? Because with empathy, I mirror the emotions of others, which makes it impossible to consider the greater good.”

In such situations it is useful to take a step beyond empathy and show compassion. Empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, but while empathy is just an emotion felt with other people, compassion involves empathy along with the motivation to help others. Joan Halifax, Ph.D., a Zen Buddhist nun and researcher, says “To be compassionate requires attention, insight, and engagement.” Empathy is inert, while compassion is active. A unifying thread among powerful leaders like the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Mother Theresa is the way that they all kept compassion at the center of their thinking.

Compassionate feelings develop in the cognitive areas of the brain and pass through filters of consciousness, giving us the opportunity to think more carefully, avoid unconscious bias and be more deliberate about our decisions. Studies have shown that being compassionate also has a more positive impact on our bodies, protecting us from stress, lowering blood pressure and affecting the heart rate and cortisol levels, among other benefits.


Turn your emotion into an intention.


  • Take an emotional step back. Empathy can often distort judgment and lead to an emotional hijack. It’s okay to take a step back from the situation, to get a clearer picture before you figure out how to solve the problem.
  • Rewire your brain to think more compassionately. Compassion is a reflective practice that can become reflexive if you train yourself to think that way. Practice not just putting yourself in others' shoes but being intentional about how you could be of use to them.
  • Have more self-compassion. Feeling what others feel can sometimes weigh you down. Practice self-care and self-acceptance to show up in a way where you feel empowered to offer compassion.


From Jillian Rosen-Filz


While online searches for “empathy” and “empath culture” as a social media trend have skyrocketed in popularity over recent years, the truth is, empathy is dangerously in decline in real life.

Are we all really empaths, or do we just have the privilege of saying we are in the moral universe of social media? Could our cultural gluttony around empathy online mean that, actually, there’s a very thin line between empathy and its polar opposite term, narcissism?


While the term’s importance has long been centered in business and leadership research (and in the world of strategy in particular), its rise in popular culture at large is relatively new. In fact, it’s become a full-blown social media strategy. Influencers, for example, aren’t just influencers anymore, they’re therapists. They can’t just create content anymore; they must provide a constant stream of empathy to their audiences in order to succeed.

That’s not to say true empathy, or true empaths, don’t exist. They do. And that’s a good thing. But the pop culture frenzy and strategic emphasis around empathy today, particularly online, seems to be pointing to one thing—empathy manufactured and fueled by our own narcissism. We must ask ourselves: are we really empaths, or do we want to be seen as empaths to fuel our egos?

So, is there something better than empathy? For influencers, business leaders, brands, and all of us?


When empathizing with someone, make the immediate next step to learn everything you can about that person’s situation.


Empathy is an inherently passive term, often with no resulting action. So, shouldn’t we stop acting like empathy alone is doing any real good?

Fritz Breithaupt, a professor at Indiana University who wrote a book titled The Dark Sides of Empathy, proposes that there is in fact something better and more productive.

“Selfish empathy,” as Breithaupt describes it, is empathy with an intentional next step of helping ourselves learn. “We can learn to see the world through the eyes of a migrant child and a militia leader and a Russian pen pal purely so we can expand our own imaginations, and make our own minds richer.”

Self-involved empathy is a less ideal way to think about practicing it, to be sure. But one that just might result in real progress.


From Osei Kwakye


The internet’s collective fascination with “cringe” used to be fueled by the empathetic experience of secondhand embarrassment. Seeing other people’s mortifying experiences captured on video offered a small dose of comfort in that it wasn’t happening to you. But as this subgenre continues to grow, the steady stream of people who continually struggle to act right may be inadvertently pulling us away from compassion and towards contempt.


You, your team, and your company exist within a digital culture that is meanspirited and increasingly oriented toward shallow reaction and partisan punditry. Everyone on the internet is waiting to pounce on whoever or whatever is next in line to do something foolish. But at work, especially when it’s remote, everyone ought to feel safe from being on the receiving end of collective ire, no matter what the mistake.


Use humor and levity to create a shame-free work environment.


Psychological safety at work is essential to learning, growth and healthy interpersonal relationships. While internet culture may appear to be harmless irreverence on its surface, it has a huge impact on how we view and interact with other people. Cringe has made it acceptable to callously judge and pile on internet strangers, so as we continue to live more of life online, we need to be more intentional about the values and behaviors we want to bring into our IRL interactions.

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