Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

Do you think empathy is sometimes is more of a liability than a benefit? If so, you’re not alone.

When I was a Princeton-based Research Fellow, Dr. Paul Bloom came to talk to our research team. His topic was, “Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion” (also the title of one of his best-selling books). 

Bloom argued that empathy gets in the way of our ability to make “rationally compassionate” decisions—that is, choices informed by ethical, equity-driven principles. He got some push-back from our empathy-happy research group. But I walked away with tremendous respect for his argument.

Our social neurocircuitry has primed us to make emotional connections with people we perceive to be in-group members—that is, people close to us, people like us, and people apt to provide some benefit to us. There’s nothing inherently bad about this situation. Our brains have been shaped by the tribal alliances that structured our social life in the deep past. That’s just the way it is. 

Example: when I meet another middle-aged white mom who’s trying to balance her professional career with parenting, I feel an immediate emotional connection. I get her feelings. I see her perspectives. I easily align with her stresses, struggles, and wins. I like her! I want to include her! I want to help her and encourage her! It’s easy to be compassionate with this person!

Again, there’s nothing intrinsically bad about this natural inclination to connect with those like us. But without conscious awareness, my alliances can turn boringly monochrome and dangerously exclusionary pretty darn quick.

How? One word: bias. 

Bias happens when I instinctively align myself with the experiences and interests of one person or group as opposed to another. Usually, bias operates under the level of conscious awareness. 

Returning to the example above: I likely wouldn’t automatically feel the same empathic affinity for the struggles of, say, a retired African American construction worker. In this case, powerful empathy is certainly possible, but not without two additional ingredients. First, I need critical awareness of sociocultural and emotional differences between us, whether real or perceived. Second, I need to make a conscious decision to intentionally feel my way into his situation, to the extent possible, through mindful awareness and empathic listening. 

Can Empathy Sabotage Hiring?

Let’s take another example. Bobby is a Director in charge of hiring a crucial management position in his company. One day Bobby interviews a candidate with whom he immediately hits it off. This interviewee seems funny, smart, confident, and capable. Bobby can’t explain it, but he just likes this guy from the moment he walks in. They went to the same university—wow! Had kids the same age—wow! They even went deer hunting in the same county each fall—wow wow WOW!

After the interview, Bobby prepares to tell the the hiring committee that he’s found their person. But he stops short because he realizes something. He’s about to make a crucial personnel recommendation based purely on empathic emotional resonance rather than self-aware rationality. As he critically questions his preference for the deer hunter, he realizes that the candidate he interviewed yesterday—a quiet Taiwanese woman with whom he found it hard to personally relate—is, hands down, better for the job. She’s more qualified, more experienced, with better references. He emails the hiring committee and says this: “I interviewed someone today with whom I’d love to go hunting, but who’s not right for the job. Yesterday’s candidate is our person.”

Bobby’s empathy-driven bias almost caused him to make a huge hiring mistake. But his critical self-awareness saved him and the company untold angst and expense.

Bias is a fact of life. But when it operates unconsciously, it can lead to injustice, exclusion, and prejudice—in other words, attitudes and acts that benefit those like me and leave out or overtly harm those unlike me.

What’s needed in today’s world is people who are self-compassionately aware of their biased feelings, who choose empathic listening and connection amid difference, and who make rational decisions that provide practical help to larger and more diverse groups of people.

Empathy is crucial. But empathy without critical self-awareness can be calamitous.

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.