The psychology of empathy


Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another persons shoes in order to understand their feelings, desires, ideas and therefore actions. Here's a guest blog on how it can make or break your business...

Now you may be wondering; what does empathy have to do with business? Quite a lot, actually. In fact, some researches (as discussed later) suggest empathy can make or break a business success.

It is easy to understand why this holds true simply by looking at some of the characteristics that empathetic people tend to possess. Empathetic people are able to get inside other peoples heads and this makes it easier for them to relate to others, solve conflicts and present difficult issues in a way that people understand and appreciate.

And in a world where your competitors are just a click away, that ability to empathise is arguably more crucial than ever.


The success of a business, many experts argue, depends on its employees. Some even argue that the CEOs most important job is to attract and keep talents. If thats the case, empathy should one of the top characteristics of anyone in leadership.

Because according to Dev Patrick, author of the book Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, having the intuition of how others feel is vital to creating that healthy and functional workplace that these talents like to work in.

Being out of touch with those you work with and sticking rigidly to the rules (as is the case with most company policies) is ultimately harmful to a company, Patrick found. CEOs who take a detached and impersonal approach to the running of their companies soon find themselves faced with a workforce who skips jobs as soon as they find a greener patch of grass.

And if a high employee turnover is not bad enough, research carried out by the Corporate Executive Board in 2011 found that among those who stayed, the ones who felt that their managers lacked interest in their personal well-being suffered a 5% reduction in productivity levels. 5% may not sound much but remember, employee productivity has an exponential effect on the companys bottomline.
One hour of an executives time, for example, translates to more than just the $50 the company pays him/her in salary it also includes the potential profit that he/she could have generated for the company.


The effects of a lack of employer empathy, unfortunately, do not end with productivity. Consider this joint study from the University of North Carolina and the University of Pennsylvania. The research, led by James Berry and Adam Grant, involved three different studies that point to the fact that taking peoples needs into consideration can improve creativity in the workplace.

The first study was carried out in a laboratory with the help of 100 college volunteers, while the other two involved surveys of supervisors and the employees that worked for them.
During one of these three studies, 90 security force officers from a military base were asked to fill out a number of surveys that focussed on their work attitudes. These surveys used a series of questions that were set up to measure the officers different motivations for doing their work, using statements such as I enjoy the work or I want to help others with my work.

A few months down the line, these officers supervisors were asked to answer questions about their performance and creativity. Officers who had scored highly on both types of questions (I enjoy the work and I want to help others through my work.), also showed higher levels of creativity.
The second survey was carried out with the help of 111 employees and supervisors at a water treatment plant, and showed the same results as the previous one. When employees are motivated by their own drive and passion for the job as well as a focus on the needs and feelings of others, their creativity flourished, making for a more challenging and productive work environment.


Ok, so internal motivation increased creativity. What does empathy have to do with that?
According to the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, empathizing with another person can be associated with a negative feeling or lead to a heightened awareness of the negative consequences of not helping; such as feelings of guilt or shame. On the other hand, it can also lead to an enhanced recognition of the positive consequences of helping others, such as social rewards and possible good feelings.

Empathy, therefore, can be seen as a motivational force that works by appealing to our conscience. And the more motivated an employee is, the more productive and creative they are.

The How

Empathy, unfortunately, is very difficult if not impossible to fake, so I wont be going into that. The more prevalent problem is when an empathetic leader appears just the opposite. Its a problem because it doesnt matter how empathetic you actually are what matters if how your employees and your customers perceive you.

The good news is that you can develop a set of behaviour and habit to craft that perception. Here are some tips to do that:

1. Begin by involving yourself with others on a more personal level. Learn to call people by name and meet them for more than just work.

2. Ensure that employees know they can come to you if they have problems, listen to complaints and feedback from you. The difference between those who are perceived as caring and those who are not are three, simple factors:

  • Did they acknowledge your concerns? You can do this simply by repeating what they told you, like this, So according to what you have said, A, B and C is a problem and your suggestion is to, X, Y, Z. Did I miss something?
  • Are there progress? Dont disappear to work on the problem that was raised. Instead, give them frequent updates as to what youve been doing to resolve it, what issues you face and what the results are so far.
  • How fast did you look into the problem? Have you ever raised an issue with a boss, only to have your proposal sit on his desk for a month? How fast you acknowledge the receipt of their concerns matter.

3. In face to face meetings, your non-verbal cues speaks more than your verbal ones. Use that to your advantage by following these tips:

  • Lean slightly forward when listening to concerns. This shows you are interested and listening. Many leaders/salesmen make the mistake of lying back and crossing the leg a sign that youre not there.
  • Always pause for a brief 2 seconds before you reply. That shows youve thought through what they said.
  • Use an open language having your palms face up and avoid crossing your hands/legs.
  • And heres the most common one: maintain eye contact. If you have to look away, look sideways instead of down. Looking down is a sign of guilt/shame and it might interpreted as lying.

4. This is something business owners often missed: maintain a list of issues that have been resolved and dedicate a section in your website to boast of case studies that you do listen. Advertising that you care only do so much if you cant back your claims and this list will immediately give you that perception you need.

The Flip Side

Note, however, that empathy is a double-edged sword. There is a downside to being too empathetic when it comes to business relationships.

If a leader does not find the right balance, it could prevent he/she from making tough decisions and taking the necessary action, such as in the case of layoffs or disciplinary measures. If they get too involved with other peoples feelings, they may take too much on themselves and become weighed down by the feelings and opinions of others.

And while its theoretically true that its just business and you should never take it personally, in reality however, it is hard if not impossible to always separate personal feelings from business. No one can ever completely separate work life from their personal life, biologically speaking, because the two are so closely intertwined. According to the recent American Time Survey, the majority of people spend more time at work than they do at home, so for many people, their work is a part of their identity.

Think about it: how do you find define yourself, a doctor or a father?

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