Practical empathy: its organisational benefits in improving productivity and decision making

Empathy. A very overused word which often lacks any real clear meaning. A lexical definition defines empathy as:

“the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this” (Merriam-Webster)

Goleman talks of Cognitive, Emotional and Compassionate Empathy in more detail here and in his work on social and emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1996; Goleman, 2007).

It seems a key feature of empathy is the ability to feel and understand the feelings or emotions of both ourselves and others. A critical skill that supports good decision making. A fundamental part of military strategy is to disrupt the enemy's decision making cycle. This would be next to impossible without empathy; the ability to understand and feel the challenges of the enemy's leadership and then to predict the decisions that will flow from there. It is this ability that empathy gives us to be able to predict future behaviours based on our empathetic appreciation of ourselves and others that significantly advances the decision maker’s ability to make sound and timely decisions.

The wonderful thing about empathy is that it can be developed. Roman Krznaric discusses six ways to develop our empathy for others, these are,

1. Switch on our empathetic brains,

2. Use imaginative leaps to develop empathy,

3. Practice empathetic listening and curiosity,

4. Practice experiential empathy,

5. Learn to empathise by reading and other mediums, and

6. Practice inspiring others to develop their empathy.

We have an opportunity to design empathy into our organisational systems and furthermore, design systems that foster the continuous development of empathy throughout the organisation. However, there is more to it, as Goleman points out. Simply understanding and even feeling the emotions of others comes with risk. If we develop empathy so as we can predict and then persuade others but do so without compassion for others then empathy runs the risk of being nothing more than a self-serving tool. As we develop empathy we need also seek to expand our compassion.

This empathetic compassion transforms the insights transferred to us by way of empathy into robust decision making that aims to address all of the complexity around us. Compassionate empathy offers the balance and commitment to see each other succeed in alignment with the organisation’s strategic goals. Studies demonstrate the positive impact on firm value and productivity when we meet people’s human needs (Edmans, 2014; The Energy Project, 2014).

Whilst we may find ourselves speaking much about the importance of social and emotional intelligence and the need for empathy, without compassion or dare I say Love, they stand as potential tools for harmful manipulation rather than supporting our teams towards a common good.

Strategic recommendations

1. Conduct empathy mapping not only for external customers but also for internal employees especially during change initiatives. Understanding the impact and timing of stress and eustress will assist decision-makers develop strategies to reduce emotional volatility during the change process.

2. Develop a culture of empathy. Educate management teams on the benefits of empathy and how best to adopt empathy as part of critical thinking. Support the workforce by introducing methods to develop empathy and expect empathy as part of the organisation's decision-making approach. For example , when making a decision it should be standard practice to contemplate and be able to articulate how this decision will make the person feel and what the predicted reaction will be (enter the decision making cycle of the other person).

3. Model compassion. In my opinion compassion is difficult to develop independently (it’s hard for a person to decide to be more compassionate and achieve that goal). It needs to be modelled externally and systems created to support a culture of compassion for it be adopted. Don’t be scared to be an example of compassion, it will catch on.

Feel free to contact me or share your own experiences of the benefits of developing empathy as a strategic approach to business improvements, I'd love to hear hear your thoughts.

Andre De Barr


Edmans, A., 2014. Does social responsibility improve corporate value?, London: London Business School of Economics.

Goleman, D., 1996. Emotional intelligence. 1st ed. London: Bloomsburry.

Goleman, D., 2007. Social intelligence. 15th ed. London: Random House.

Goodwin, P. & Wright, G., 2014. Decision analysis for management judgement. 5th ed. Chichester: Wiley.

McShane, S., Olekalns, M., Newman, A. & Travaglione, T., 2016. Organisational behaviour: emerging knowledge. global insights. 5th ed. North Ryde: McGraw-Hill Education.

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R., 2009. Nudge. 1st ed. London: Penguin Books.

The Energy Project, 2014. The Human Era at Work, Boston: Harverd Business Press.


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