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An overlooked superpower in today’s business world.

An overlooked superpower in today’s business world.

4 minutes read.

She is brilliant. My eight years old niece is a curious kid. She always wants to know and asks a lot of questions. She is my interaction and source of learning with another generation: me as a millennial and her as a Gen Z.

It was a grey winter evening; my young niece and her teenage sister were bored with watching the Barbie movie. I asked them if they wish to be like a Barbie. They looked uninterested. Glad to receive such a response, I asked them what character they wanted to be. The older one whispered, “Some movie characters have superpowers.” Well, I did not expect to hear that. Suddenly, my interest switched from  “who” to “what.” I asked what superpower they wished to have. They thought about it for a few minutes, and the younger one shouted, “I want to be able to know what people think and feel.” Something clicked in my mind. Is she talking about “empathy”? Wow! This aspiration came from an eight-year-old girl who didn’t know what the word “empathy” meant. Surprised and puzzled, I asked why. “This is the greatest superpower!” she shouted, looking so empowered.

I was impressed. Empathy is a superpower. Empathy also is a hot and relatively new topic in today’s business, especially in discussions that compare human powers to machines within digital transformations. So, let’s see what exactly we are talking about and why it is an important and often missing element of today’s business practices.

What is empathy?

According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, empathy is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” Although this is more or less it, I prefer a more in-depth meaning because understanding a concept in greater detail helps me practice it better.

Jamil Zaki, the author of “The War of Kindness” and Professor of psychology, defines empathy as multidimensional, containing three elements.

  • Mentalizing: considering and understanding others
  • Experience sharing: sharing other’s feelings and emotions
  • Expressing: motivation to improve other’s experience by showing sympathy

What I like about this definition is that it includes thinking, feeling and doing. Empathy is a conscious act where you put yourself in someone’s shoes, sense the emotions they may be feeling and use this knowledge and understanding to give support. It takes work to be empathetic, but the effort is worth it, as we shall see.

Empathy is a superpower not only to me but also to many professionals who work in organizational change, transformation and “the future of work.” These professions require a sense of belonging to a group and the ability to understand and cooperate with others.

Historically, empathy was a topic of interest in psychology, philosophy and neuroscience. In recent decades, with the emergence of Emotional Intelligence, Design Thinking or Human-centered Design, empathy has gained more attention in the business world, appearing in many articles, case studies and blog posts.

Here are the most talked-about topics :

Leadership – Experts say that leadership is a relationship and emotional connections between people are the essence of any business. Sensitivity to the needs of employees is what distinguishes outstanding leaders from less effective ones. We like and care about our effective leaders because they spark positive feelings through their empathy. We respond to their caring with higher engagement and performance. For example, charismatic leaders with high empathy for their team members stimulate their need for affiliation and enhancing their sense of collective identity, job satisfaction, and self-leadership and performance.

Team building – Empathy is a key mechanism that explains how people in diverse groups can work sociably together and increase their overall cohesiveness and group performance. Thomas P Seager states that “for teams to function well, they somehow have to get to know each other on some deeper level.” The deeper level he mentions includes empathy for one another.

Group performance – Empathy plays an important role in explaining how workplace diversity increases organizational performance. Increased empathy among employees has a positive impact on how people complete their tasks and generate expected results through encouraging and supporting people’s diverse perspectives and skillsets.

Innovation – Practices such as design thinking use empathy to inform product design, sales and marketing and change management. As Tim Brown puts it:

They can imagine the world from multiple perspectives—those of colleagues, clients, end users, and customers (current and prospective). By taking a “people first” approach, design thinkers can imagine solutions that are inherently desirable and meet explicit or latent needs. Great design thinkers observe the world in minute detail. They notice things that others do not and use their insights to inspire innovation.

I also agree with marketing expert Joel Harrison who believes that empathy is the secret to driving more respect and understanding and eventually trust in people-centred innovation and change. Trust is earned by how we think, feel and act.

I have a question for change practitioners: How does empathy play a role in your stakeholder assessments, change impact analyses and change success measurement? I am curious to know your answers. Let me know.

All superpowers have a dark side

Like all positive forces, empathy can lead to negative outcomes. It may reduce our mental resources. For instance, jobs that require constant empathy can lead to “compassion fatigue,” which is a severe inability to empathize, driven by stress and burnout. Also, empathy can inhibit social actions or even lead to amoral behaviour. For example, someone who sees a car accident and is overwhelmed by emotions may not help the victim who is in severe pain who they are feeling for.

Empathy may produce social preferences that can obscure our fairness and justice. For example, strong empathetic feelings for family members or our own social or racial group might lead to bias, and in the extreme, hate or discrimination towards those who are perceived as a threat. Also, people who are good at reading others’ emotions, such as fortune-tellers or psychics, could use their empathetic skills for their own benefit by misleading others.

The positives by far outweigh the potential negatives. Empathy is the underlying glue that, if practiced correctly, can make us nonjudgmental and united. It can lead to more effective leadership, optimized processes, better team cohesiveness and stronger customer/stakeholder relationships. It is an essential requirement of the future of work.

Looking at the horizons of the future, we, more than ever, need to connect to our very human nature through empathy. It’s not only a matter of doing business better so we can increase ROI, but it’s also a matter of human survival. Beyond our professional lives, empathy can contribute to solving more social and environmental problems that threaten humans. I believe that empathy is one of the practices that can help us finally realize how we can take care of our only home, the Earth.

Stay tuned for more insights on empathy and how we can develop and practice it in our lives.

PS: I was writing this post when Flight 752 crash happened. It was a national grief, and a nation empathized with our community in Canada. I could see how empathy kept us united and pushed us to think, feel and act. Sometimes, especially in times of crisis, even if you try not to, you cannot not emphasize with all who are affected. During these tragic situations, you can see the power of empathy shine the brightest.

This is post #3 of the “Human Side 4.0™” series. See beginning of the series here.

Sources and recommended readings:

  • J. Zaki, K. N. Ochsner, and K. Ochsner, “The neuroscience of empathy: progress, pitfalls and promise,” Nat. Neurosci., vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 675–680, Apr. 2012, doi: 10.1038/nn.3085.
  • H. Tajfel and J. Turner, “An integrative theory of intergroup conflict,” in Intergroup relations: Essential readings, New York, NY, US: Psychology Press, 2001, pp. 94–109.
  • “In Defense of Dolphins: The New Moral Frontier | Wiley,” Wiley.com. [Online]. Available: https://www.wiley.com/en-us/In+Defense+of+Dolphins%3A+The+New+Moral+Frontier-p-9781405157797. [Accessed: 31-Jan-2020].
  • “The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition: Michael Tomasello: 9780674005822: Books – Amazon.ca.” [Online]. Available: https://www.amazon.ca/Cultural-Origins-Human-Cognition/dp/0674005821. [Accessed: 31-Jan-2020].
  • P. Molenberghs, “Understanding others’ feelings: what is empathy and why do we need it?,” The Conversation. [Online]. Available: http://theconversation.com/understanding-others-feelings-what-is-empathy-and-why-do-we-need-it-68494. [Accessed: 31-Jan-2020].
  • R. K. Cooper and A. Sawaf, Executive EQ: Emotional Intelligence in Leadership and Organizations. Penguin, 1998.
  • R. J. House and P. M. Podsakoff, “Leadership effectiveness: Past perspectives and future directions for research,” in Organizational behavior: The state of the science, Hillsdale, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc, 1994, pp. 45–82.
  • J. B. Kellett, R. H. Humphrey, and R. G. Sleeth, “Empathy and complex task performance: two routes to leadership,” Leadersh. Q., vol. 13, no. 5, pp. 523–544, Oct. 2002, doi: 10.1016/S1048-9843(02)00142-X.
  • J. Choi, “A Motivational Theory of Charismatic Leadership: Envisioning, Empathy, and Empowerment,” J. Leadersh. Organ. Stud., vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 24–43, Sep. 2006, doi: 10.1177/10717919070130010501.
  • M. Roberge, “A Multi-Level Conceptualization of Empathy to Explain How Diversity Increases Group Performance,” 2013, doi: 10.5539/ijbm.v8n3p122.
  • W. G. Stephan and K. Finlay, “The Role of Empathy in Improving Intergroup Relations,” J. Soc. Issues, vol. 55, no. 4, pp. 729–743, Jan. 1999, doi: 10.1111/0022-4537.00144.
  • M.-E. Roberge, “A Multi-Level Conceptualization of Empathy to Explain How Diversity Increases Group Performance,” Int. J. Bus. Manag., vol. 8, no. 3, p. p122, Jan. 2013, doi: 10.5539/ijbm.v8n3p122.
  • J. S. Menegazzo, V. C. Ortiz, A. O. Maldonado, and M. S. Soria, “Positive Institutions and their relationship with transformational leadership, empathy and team performance,” Multidiscip. J. Educ. Soc. Technol. Sci., vol. 2, no. 2, pp. 38–64, 2015.
  • T. Brown, “Design thinking,” Harv. Bus. Rev., vol. 86, no. 6, pp. 84–92, 141, Jun. 2008
  • A. Waytz, “The limits of empathy,” Harv. Bus. Rev., vol. 94, no. 1, p. 15, 2016.      
  • J. Decety and J. M. Cowell, “Empathy, Justice, and Moral Behavior,” AJOB Neurosci., vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 3–14, Jul. 2015, doi: 10.1080/21507740.2015.1047055
Dr. BehNaz Gholami

Dr. BehNaz Gholami

Founder of Dizen & Human Side Academy. BehNaz is a Social Scientist, a Senior Change Strategist and Experience Designer.

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