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Why you should not be compassionate at work

We've all heard the stories of how important it is to be compassionate. At home, with friends, colleagues and just about everywhere. But what if this only applies in part?

Could it be that bringing compassion into your workplace could actually be harmful? In Ducky we strive to be a Teal organization.

And one of our core values is to be “Compassionate”. Well strange as it may seem, there are times when it can be downright destructive to be compassionate at work.

What is compassion?

Compassion takes its origin from the Latin “com“ meaning together, with “passio” suffering. Basically translating to “suffer together”. It's a state that makes us feel moved and touched by what happens to others. We feel their pain, we suffer together with them and we will actively seek ways to help, often leading us to put others' needs ahead of our own. And this is the problem.

Why should compassion be avoided in the workplace?

Let’s be honest, everyone suffers – in different ways of course. In a company like ours, we encourage wholeness in our culture, meaning that we invite everyone to leave their professional masks at home and come to work as the 'real' you. That means complete with your “good days” and “bad days”.

In such an environment, the chances are you will also regularly meet people who are feeling sad, hurt, anxious, stressed etc. The list of potentially unpleasant feelings is long! The bigger the company the more the chance you will be forced to work alongside those who are suffering some emotional overload or another. 

The problem is if you are compassionate, and sharing the suffering with everyone around you, it will eventually have consequences. Not only can you start to suffer as well, but it can also drain your energy, overwhelm you and may even lead to compassion fatigue.

Symptoms include health disorders such as exhaustion or trouble sleeping, as well as impaired decision making, poor work-life balance, and even a diminished sense of motivation and fulfillment.

So, how to deal with this potential problem?

To thrive in a respectful and loving work environment, while still protecting ourselves from harm, we can adopt another route. We can practice the superpower of being emphatic.

Empathy is the ability to perceive and understand others’ reality. It is a complex psychological mechanism that allows an individual to understand someone else’s feelings and emotions, without being consumed by them. Basically, it is to wonder “what would I feel if I were in their shoes?”. We can see the world from someone else's viewpoint, without getting sucked up by negative emotions.

Empathy is one of the key components of the therapeutic relationship, which allows a care provider to do their job without being harmed. It is developed by learning how to listen to and understand others in a genuinely connected way.

The benefit in the workplace

According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, empathy is one of the five components of emotional intelligence. The others are social skills, self-awareness, self-regulation, and motivation. You can find numerous articles pointing out that leaders with high emotional intelligence create more connected and motivated teams.  

Practicing empathy rather than compassion creates a healthy environment which allows for personal wholeness, but also supports more effective conflict resolution. Using empathy during a dispute allows one to have an open mind towards the situation. The willingness and ability to “walk a mile in their shoes” before criticizing someone opens the door to acknowledging the feelings of others. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree.

We can “agree to disagree”, show respect and listen to each other without hurting or being hurt. By applying an empathetic approach we gain an enhanced perspective, which in turn allows for an easier and more effective way to find a common ground to agree on.

A study from Letizia Dal Santo looking at empathy stated that “perspective taking enhances job satisfaction, work engagement and reduces turnover intention. Compassion does not”. These three points are definitely desirable for all work environments.

How to interact better with our colleagues

While empathy, like charisma, is generally nourished from an early age by personality and environment, it can also be taught and developed. For example, here's an exercise from Psychology Today, teaching how to practice empathy at work.

Professional training may even be offered in the workplace setting as part of a professional development process. But each of us can help things along by simply practicing wholeness (connecting mind, body, and emotions) and mastering an 'acceptance first' approach.

While wholeness encourages you to show your whole self at work, acceptance means “welcoming everyone as they are”, without judgment. It starts off, crucially, with accepting oneself and then broadens out to embrace others. By better understanding ourselves, peacefully and without toxic self criticism, we learn how to be more empathetic towards those around us.

Which means we neatly sidestep the trap of absorbing negative suffering from other people in our lives. The result is we can enjoy a more healthy, balanced and happy work life in just about any situation.


 1. Santo, Letizia & Pohl, Sabine & Battistelli, Adalgisa. (2013). Empathy in the emotional interactions with patients. Is it positive for nurses too?. Journal of Nursing Education and Practice,. 4. 74-81. 10.5430/jnep.v4n2p74. 

2.  which should be cautiously separated from “welcoming everyone’s behaviour”. Don’t get me wrong, you are allowed and accepted to be angry, but this does not give you the right to “demolish your meeting room to express it” or “you are welcome to bring your sadness, but you are not entitled to not be accountable because of your sadness”.