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The Curious Case for Compassion in (Internal) Communications

Compassion, empathy and sympathy are often mistaken to be synonymous, especially when utilized within the context of communication.  To have sympathy for an individual or group is not the same as to have empathy for that individual or group, and neither sympathy nor empathy can equate to compassion.  Another way to look at these 3 words is by scale of magnitude or responsibility: sympathy is the easiest to achieve, as it means you understand what a person or group is feeling.  Empathy is more difficult than sympathy, because it’s not just limited to understanding, but encompasses fully feeling what a person or group is feeling.  And finally, compassion, is the desire to help or willingness to relieve the suffering of the person or group.

Oftentimes, in internal communications, particularly when leadership or owner(s) of a company are attempting to navigate difficult turbulence or change – let’s take a round of layoffs for example – the lack of sympathy, empathy and compassion can leave a bitter taste in the mouths of impacted employees and a horrible impression in the minds of surviving (those that weren’t directly laid-off) employees.

Of course, it’s easy to throw rocks.  I recently reflected and remembered one of the first (if not the very first of) layoffs that I undertook.  About 20 long years ago, when my creative agency was only a few years old, our small print department was challenged by a young, entry-level graphic artist, who had raw design talent, but difficulty taking direction from the department VP.  He would argue against feedback, whether it came from the VP or clients, and then become sullen or passive aggressive.  His behavior was impacting the entire team, even though the VP took documented steps to try to implement improvement plans or gently mentor him.  After several conversations with the VP, I chose to move forward with laying him off.  To be clear, this situation is not unlike countless similar situations that every company has faced across numerous adaptations, which makes how this type of situation is handled so very significant within the context of today’s workforce. 

It wasn’t the decision as much as the actual event, that is seared into my mind.  Because when I delivered the news to him (he was seated next to the VP in my office), in no-nonsense and very strong, matter-of-fact language, I was prepared for angry push back.  I was ready for confrontation.  But he simply started to cry. 

I won’t belabor you with more details around what happened next, because that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that my approach and mindset were all wrong.  Instead of starting with a sympathetic mindset, and a desire to feel empathy, I assumed a defensive “what’s best for the company” position.  Now, looking back all these years, I realize sympathy, empathy and compassion in dealing with these matters and “what’s best for the company” are not mutually exclusive.  You can have all these things at the same time – you just have to level up your communications by expanding your mindset.

In my most recent layoff experience, just last year, our CEO via an all-hands webcast made the comment: “you shouldn’t let this job define you” to both impacted and surviving employees, as his response to the round of mass layoffs.  It stood out to me, as just months prior, he had told the very same employees: “you should put everything you have into this company and your job”.  That type of roundabout communications is a prevalent issue facing employee engagement today, and even the most junior employee can quickly see through that level of thin guise.  Once an employee is disengaged, the cost of re-engaging that employee is incredibly high – particularly if that employee begins exploring the possibility for new employment elsewhere. 

Or maybe the situation isn’t about layoffs; recently, the CEO of Morgan Stanley told employees that working remotely is “not an employee choice”.  This type of position has become an increasing trend as companies attempt to revert to pre-pandemic working conditions. But this statement, in particular, is painstakingly clear and not open for much in the way of interpretation, which may have been the entire intention.  Yet, imagine how a single word could have changed the sentiment of that phrase entirely, “not (just) an employee choice”, and at the same time opened the trajectory to a flexible and collaborative discussion.  Because stating it’s “not an employee choice” closes the door on the possibility that “not (just) an employee choice” can initiate a dialogue around, and bidirectional communications is the connective tissue for employee engagement.  Because if it’s not (just) an employee choice, then there are other voices in the decision – including owners, leaders, managers, and more.  And by making it not (just) an employee choice, multiple inroads can be opened to promoting sympathy, expressing empathy or even possibly compassion.  Why sacrifice these opportunistic building blocks for no reason? 

Too many times, especially in the face of difficult change communications, leaders revert to unyielding, inflexible, “don’t mince words” positions.  Why?  Because they have to be seen as strong and assertive?  But I would contest that communications, particularly to your own employees who look to you for leadership, can be assertive *and* sympathetic.  You can have both energy and empathy.  You can be both strong and compassionate.  In all the stories that I’ve heard from C-level executives and company owners, very rarely did the circumstance require them to choose one or the other.  But you should open yourself up to feedback and criticism in any case.  A modern employee experience will never be achieved through unidirectional communication.

“Managing communication to employees is a key part of the crisis communication strategy. If employees trust management and have appropriate mechanisms, it can become a strategic advantage. Without trust, employees can use external channels to vent.”


In my experience, dealing with the spectrum of company change, ensure your communications (the outline, drafting, etc.) contain a strong foundation of sympathy and/or empathy.  Begin there.  Then layer on, if desired, your desired sentiments to exhibit strength or assertiveness, confidence in your future vision, and your resolve to lead the company through this difficult time. 

Afterwards, especially within large enterprises or matrixed/complex organizations, have a multi-channel communication and content strategy ready to further progress the notes of sympathy and empathy (impacted and surviving employees) while asserting resolve and clarifying the path forward (for surviving employees).  Content, in particular, is one of the most (if not the most) effective vehicles for creating empathy with an audience, even an employee audience. 

It may not be easy, but the most worthwhile achievements never are.  Building an employee experience that you can be proud will require both successes and failures across repeated engagement, time and time again.  Demonstrating a complexity in your communications approach, as opposed to a single-strict POV, helps to show both an arc and growth to your employees.  Lastly, as captured perfectly in one of my favorite quotes from Rumi: “Raise your words, not your voice.  It is the rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”

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