Business case for empathy

Three reasons why empathy makes business sense now

Vidhi Kumar
Director - People Capability 10 Jan 2022

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Business case for empathy

Three reasons why empathy makes business sense now

A happy new year and welcome to the season of resolutions! Mine is to focus on the positive and continue my practice of gratitude through this year. Searching for positive news though, in these times is definitely not easy, but I did manage to find one yesterday that made me smile. Following the famous New Year’s Ball Drop in New York City this year, Eric Adams took office as the new mayor. One of the key agendas he wants to drive in his team is to hire for more empathy.

While organisations and leaders have been talking about empathy for several years, it is heartening to see that the need for more empathetic behaviour is entering into wider areas like public service. In his 2006 book – A Whole New Mind – Daniel Pink spoke about how “the capabilities we once disdained or thought frivolous—the ‘right-brain’ qualities of inventiveness, empathy, joyfulness, and meaning—increasingly will determine who flourishes and who flounders.” Domains like medicine and healthcare, education and law will require us to exhibit greater human skills like empathy and creativity, while letting machines and AI handle what they do best.

And then again, empathy is considered a soft, mushy half-skill, even a personality trait sometimes – indicating that we either have it in us to be empathetic or don’t. Doubt has loomed on whether empathy can actually be measured. These paradoxes got me started to unpack some questions in my head around modern-age empathy and how it manifests in our work lives.

First, is Empathy a skill or a personality trait?

The construct of empathy became widely known after Daniel Goleman talked about it in his 1995 book on Emotional Intelligence. According to Goleman, empathy is basically the ability to understand others’ emotions and there are three types of empathy:

  1. Cognitive empathy – clearly identified as a ‘skill’ that helps us understand what others are thinking. This skill can indeed be learnt to become better communicators.

  2. Emotional empathy – observed as an ability to tap into your emotions to build a deeper connection with others.

  3. Empathetic concern – also referred to as compassionate empathy, this calls for going beyond feeling the emotions, and acting to help the other person.

As humans, we are wired to feel these emotions.

“… the ancient parts of the brain beneath the cortex – the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the orbitofrontal cortex – that allow us to feel fast without thinking deeply” enable us to be empathetic at the core.

However, like all skills – empathy also needs practice.

So, how do I learn empathy?

It turns out that practicing empathy is actually not that hard. Scientists have discovered biological evidence that human brain fires “mirror neurons” when we observe and experience emotion..

Simply put, in order to try to understand what my team member is going through, my brain is capable of pretending that I am going through a similar situation 

It is important to highlight at this point, the difference between empathy and sympathy. Best explained by Dr. Brene Brown in her 2012 book Daring Greatly , empathy makes you vulnerable too. Just pretending to be in a tough spot without a frame of reference will not help build a connect – that is just sympathy. But what if I have never been in that kind of a situation to empathise? As an example, imagine a manager who does not have kids of her own and finds it difficult to connect during a team member’s pregnancy and subsequent maternity period. The situation may sound awkward, but it is very real. The number one tool to build an empathetic connection in such situations is listening. Asking meaningful questions, listening intently and building insights go a long way in enabling empathetic relationships. In brief, you don’t need to have gone through every problem to know how the other person feels. Trust them enough to share their feelings and how they would best use your help.

Then, can the impact of empathy be measured?

There is a lot of modern research and management studies that point to the fact that empathy in fact is great for business and profitability. Here are three reasons that I could strongly resonate with:

1. Empathy helps you build greater customer connect and innovate in order to build better products and solve problems

Understanding customers’ unmet needs, articulating them and trying to solve those is at the core of a customer-centric, innovative business. In fact, Telefonica Germany implemented a nation-wide “empathy training program that led to an increase in customer satisfaction of 6% within 6 weeks.”

Empathy pays.

2. Empathetic leaders build bonded teams that are willing to go over and beyond what is defined in their job descriptions

Leaders who communicate with empathy ensure that their team members also feel heard and valued. They build environments where each individual’s strengths are leveraged, and everyone feels fulfilled while working towards a common goal. Further, empathetic leaders care, and true genuine care is the most important currency in today’s uncertain times, when employee needs can vary from safety to mental wellness and everything in between.

3. Empathy makes for socially responsible businesses that care for the ecosystem they operate in and define a strong sustainable journey for themselves

Businesses have the power to transcend boundaries and go beyond just economic causes. Leveraging this power needs leaders to be empathetic towards a larger world view and care about the causes that are important. Environment care, diversity and inclusion, climate change, and generating employment are pertinent causes that tie in closely with businesses, allowing them to make a larger difference outside of their balance sheets and build strong brands

It takes courage for leaders like Eric Adams to break the mould and ask for greater empathy in teams and organisations. It is inspiring to see this change, read the definite research in favour of empathy and celebrate leaders who build businesses with an empathetic concern. Here’s hoping for more empathy in our businesses.