The Empathetic Organisation: How Companies can Improve Working Relationships With Staff and Customers

Peter Bryant
Dec 06, 2016

‘If you need a friend get a dog,’ was the advice dispensed by dealmaker Gordon Gekko to his young charge in 1980s’ film Wall Street. But today, empathy—the ability to step outside one’s own way of thinking, appreciate the world of others, and be a true friend—is viewed as an important part of good business. While we naturally empathise with family, friends and neighbours, empathy, if properly managed, can also be generated within organisations.

Research shows that our brains have evolved to feel and intuit the mental life of others, their beliefs, motivations, hopes and fears. This ‘mentalising‘ process allows us to function socially, it underpins our psychological health and sense of identity, and gives us the capacity to empathise. Science teaches us that mentalising and empathy are part of being human.

In today’s culturally-diverse business environment, companies see huge benefits in hiring people with highly developed mentalising capabilities. However, the ability to appreciate someone else’s complex, uncomfortable or novel world can be mentally and emotionally demanding, and must be managed carefully. If employees empathise out of intrinsic motivation and a genuine sense of pride, autonomy and satisfaction in their work relationships, empathy can be a source of inner energy and meaning. Staff can feel more alive, vital and attached; engagement intensifies, productivity rises.

But if imposed or mandated through necessity or obligation, empathy can be emotionally draining, and even counterproductive. If you insist, for example, that your sales people smile at the customer at all times regardless of context, or that staff empathise constantly with a difficult colleague, they will quickly become emotionally exhausted. Kellogg School of Management’s Adam Waytz notes that failing to recognise empathy’s limits can ‘impair individual and organisational performance.’

To some extent the setting determines the limits of empathy. It thrives on positive experiences of diversity and cross cultural interaction where values are shared. For example, in bringing up children, parents may have different approaches but they care for children regardless of culture or context, empathising over common concerns and goals. There is clear common ground, values are shared and empathy is natural. In the same way, when managed well, a diverse team improves communication, collaboration and effectiveness, especially when facing a new challenge. Rather than draining us, team members become galvanised, adaptive and open to fresh ideas; and the company becomes more agile and innovative.

How then can companies foster effective empathetic behaviour?

  • Strengthen mentalising capabilities and collective empathy: As a first step, consider ways to stimulate mentalising capabilities. For example, firms might implement a job rotation scheme with the specific goal of getting staff to appreciate the outlook and concerns of different business units. Alternatively, create collective incentives such as a universal bonus for collaboration, to promote common aspirations and rewards.
  • Celebrate team diversity. Use existing communications channels to make an explicit point about the benefits of diverse teams, thus helping staff to appreciate and embrace the day-to-day differences that are around them.
  • Provide formal training. Team-based challenges can help put employees into others’ shoes. For example, role plays, where some team members behave as customers, while others listen to complaints and then respond as service personnel.
  • Engage directly with customers. One of the best ways to motivate staff is for them to see how their efforts benefit end-users. Going beyond role play, Wharton School’s Adam Grant writes that direct engagement with customers’ needs and wants stimulates empathy and hugely improves performance.
  • Create an empathy map. Used in design thinking and lean startup projects, the technique maps potential customers’ needs, pains, wants and hopes. IBM, Marriott and many others do it using design thinking. GE and Dropbox, for example, employ the lean startup version of empathy in customer discovery.
  • Lead by example. Managers themselves can demonstrate how empathetic behaviour with employees and customers improves relationships and performance.