Some days in business, your workers feel like King Kong on an entire box of Wheaties. Other days ... yeah, not so much. No matter what's going on in the office to melt your team into a puddle, emotional intelligence goes a long way in diffusing the issue and facilitating progress. To this end, empathy and sympathy aren't the same thing. They serve specific psychological needs and, as a result, have to be applied carefully when the going's tough.


Sympathy--pity or sorrow; recognition of distress or need; you care about someone else's trouble.

Empathy--the feeling that you understand someone else's experiences; the ability to share and understand the emotions of someone else; putting yourself in someone else's shoes.


Sympathy offers a person validation and attention. It says that, to some degree, he or she is a victim and, therefore, not entirely responsible. It also boosts the ego and provides permission to release guilt, thereby getting rid of emotional pain and shame. In essence, it's about justice and fairness.

Empathy makes people feel like they are an insider to a group. Subsequently, empathy makes them feel protected and normal. It reduces the fear they have of being alone and being unable to survive. Reducing that fear means they can turn off their fight-or-flight response, feel less stressed, and think more logically about what to do next.

When to dish out each form of support

Sympathy functions intrapersonally, building self-confidence, whereas empathy functions interpersonally, building relationships. Thus, sympathy is suitable in situations such as when a worker:

  • feels unfairly penalized
  • feels passed over
  • makes a mistake that likely could not have been prevented
  • is overwhelmed by tasks

Empathy is suitable in situations such as when a worker:

  • has to meet with others for the first time
  • is having trouble connecting with other team members
  • doesn't want to speak out for fear of being judged

Empowerment, absolution, and fairness are the goals with sympathy. To show sympathy, considering the examples above, you thus could

  • Offer to change the team member's workload
  • Set up meetings to work together to compare evaluation criteria with performance
  • Provide chances to try again or remedy errors
  • Give additional resources
  • Perform simple services, such as bringing the person lunch or a coffee

Although it's not a hard and fast rule, showing sympathy tends to be actionable. You can get out there and do to fix the problem. When a person in your business needs empathy, however, the only real option is passive. You have to listen. If you don't hear what a person is directly or indirectly saying through words, body language, and other signals, you won't be able to pull appropriate information from your own life experiences to send the message that you relate.

Yes, some situations call for both

Notwithstanding that empathy and sympathy are different animals, there are times when a worker can need both from you because of the complex emotions the situation draws up. For instance, when employees have a family member pass away, they might need to hear that they did all they could (absolution). But they also might need to express the agony of loss and know that, like them, you felt like the world was ending when your loved one passed (confirmation of normalcy, inclusion).

The takeaway

Empathy and sympathy are necessary in business. They are not, however, interchangeable. Analyzing your circumstances well ups the odds that you meet the needs your team has and, as a result, contributes to your overall business morale, innovation, and stability.