I work with a special needs sports program in my town. One of my roles is to explain to our teenaged volunteers how we want them to interact with our athletes and what kinds of behavior are acceptable. The class is a little heavy handed as we feel that our culture of kindness is the paramount reason why we are able to have success.
One of the hardest parts of the class is when we discuss the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. In a simplistic manner, sympathy means you feel sorry for someone. Empathy is that you can relate to what someone is going through, and compassion is understanding there are differences and you want to make it better. We explain that our athletes want people who want them to succeed not someone who prejudices against them because of their uniqueness.
These phenomena happen every day in the workplace without people realizing it. Leaders feel like they are bonding with their team by showing sympathy and empathy in inappropriate times. A coworker having personal issues at home needs you to be flexible and understanding (compassion). They do not need you to tell them you are sorry then relay a story about how you have gone through or are going through the same thing.
This is especially true when a leader rises through the ranks. You tend to be very involved in your team’s lives since you were one of them. To be their leader, you need to establish new ground rules and boundaries. Caring about the person and their well-being is a critical part of team building, being overly involved is not.
As you are building your leadership tool belt, make sure you focus on compassion. If you find yourself always telling stories that parallel your team member’s issues, then maybe you need to look in the mirror and focus more on how to help.