Empathy is a muscle, so it needs to be exercised.
—Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft
Excerpt from Purposeful Empathy: Tapping Our Hidden Superpower for Personal, Organizational, and Social Change
Nestled in the Caucasus Mountains, at the intersection of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, is a small country that punches above its weight. Inhabited by Homo erectus since the Paleolithic era, Georgia may have fewer than four million inhabitants but welcomed over seven million tourists in 2019. Archeological evidence reveals that the country has been producing wine since 6000 BC— long before Italy or France. And despite a tiny population, its national rugby team plays in the big leagues, living up to its country’s motto: “Strength in Unity.”
In 2021, I spent six months living in Georgia’s capital city and worked with the Petre Shotadze Tbilisi Medical Academy (TMA). Initially, they wanted me to integrate empathy into their curriculum, but during my first meeting with their leadership team, the dean spoke passionately about their commitment to graduating physicians dedicated to the health of their patients and to social and planetary wellness. Impressed by their holistic view of medical education, I shared my reservations about incorporating empathy so far downstream. If the goal was to have it in their organizational DNA, gaining top-to-bottom support seemed like a better approach. I was delighted they agreed.
Over four half-day sessions, I facilitated workshops for twenty-five managers and administrators. The team laughed and cried together through a series of exercises, including eye gazing, storytelling, active listening, and empathy circles. They mapped out measurable ways to operationalize empathy using a design thinking process. They even had a couple of eureka moments working through my purposeful empathy diagram. Not only did they discover a common desire to do more for their local community, but one senior member shared with me in confidence that she had an epiphany and finally understood her life’s purpose. It was magical.
No matter the size or industry of an organization—be it a major financial institution or a small humanitarian NGO—I always look forward to the a-ha moment when my clients realize the enormous value of empathy as a strategic opportunity and cultural norm. Contrary to popular belief, having empathy at work is not a sentimental, feel-good nice-to-have. It’s become a hallmark of great companies. It’s also the number-one leadership skill to help fuel business growth, build strong teams, and contribute to career success.
In a study with fifteen thousand leaders, those who master listening and respond with empathy outperform their peers by 40 percent in coaching, planning, and decision making. Empirical evidence also shows that empathy in the workplace positively affects communication, productivity, performance, talent acquisition, retention, innovation, resilience, growth, and, yes, even profit. In 2015, the Global Empathy Index found that the ten most empathy- focused companies had generated 50 percent more earnings per employee than did the bottom ten. Even Harvard Business Review has reported on the direct link between empathy and commercial success.
In 2019, the Society for Human Resource Management calculated that toxic workplace cultures had cost US employers $223 billion over the previous five years. In 2020, it reported that nearly half the employees it surveyed had considered leaving their job given the company culture. And that’s before COVID-19 put things into overdrive.
The Great Resignation happened for good reason. Low-wage earners called it quits because the personal costs and risks of working were too high. Meanwhile, professionals could no longer justify or tolerate their working conditions either. Feeling chronically overworked, underappreciated, or both, millions of workers hit a tipping point. It appears to have taken a global pandemic to fully appreciate the significance of an empathic culture at work.
Sadly, many companies learned the hard way, and the fallout continues to be consequential. According to a Deloitte study published in 2021, three-quarters of CEOs anticipated work shortages would disrupt their businesses over the subsequent twelve months, and nearly six in ten believed that attracting talent would be among their company’s biggest challenges. In addition, over the next decade, sixty million members of Gen Z—the most diverse generation the United States has ever known—will begin their careers. And they’re expected to transform the workforce by bringing a new set of values, expectations, and goals.
This will have major implications for corporate America. For example, according to recent research, more than two-thirds of Gen Z respondents say they’d be “absolutely” more likely to apply for a job with a company that reflects racial and ethnic diversity through its recruitment and marketing materials. In addition, given their comfort with gender fluidity and nonbinary identity, 88 percent say it’s important for employers to ask about gender pronouns. All told, leaders and organizations must become more inclusive and empathic. The question is: how?
LEARNING TO BE (MORE) EMPATHIC
I’m often asked, “Can empathy be taught?” The short answer is yes but not overnight and not in the same way other skills are developed. According to Julie Battilana and Tiziana Casciaro, coauthors of Power, for All, “Deep and lasting development of empathy requires more than temporarily seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. It entails sustainably shifting from a focus on the self to an awareness and appreciation of interdependence.” Cultivating empathy takes practice, not a one-off webinar. Some pioneering organizations already get this, but the critical mass is just starting to clue in.
At the time of this writing, I have uploaded more than twenty-five hundred consecutive “Daily Empathy Posts” covering a wide variety of empathy- related content. Over the past couple of years, I have watched the volume of articles about empathy, leadership, and culture skyrocket, especially in unlikely business publications like Forbes, Inc., and Fast Company. As a long- time empathy enthusiast, I’m thrilled by its newfound rock-star status, but I’m also weary of empathy-washing, a term coined by Belinda Parmer, founder of The Empathy Index, to describe corporate virtue signaling. After all, “for companies to live out empathy in real and meaningful ways, it must become the fabric of organizational culture,” writes Maria Ross in The Empathy Edge. That’s why empathy-training programs must be carefully evaluated to weed out the phonies and fakes.
With that in mind, below are seven examples that span early childhood to executive education. Some were ahead of the curve, with long track records of impact. Others were created more recently, using research into human consciousness, trauma, or neuroscience to inform their approach. Regardless of their theory of change, each example is relevant to leaders and organizations seeking to foster a culture of empathy. And despite their different approaches, they share a core belief in common: empathy is not a fixed trait, and we can all become more empathic with practice.
Roots of Empathy
Founded in 1996 by Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy (ROE) is an award-winning, evidence-based program that has taught social and emotional learning to over one million schoolchildren worldwide by bringing babies into classrooms. Once a month throughout the academic year, a baby and their parent or guardian visit a designated class. Schools with twelve grade levels engage twelve different babies and their families, and each trained facilitator uses age-appropriate curricula. On a typical visit, students sit in a circle around a green blanket, and the baby is placed in the middle. The facilitator asks the kids to describe how the baby has changed since their last encounter and how it appears to be feeling that day. Throughout the visit, they reflect on the baby’s needs, witness tenderness between the infant and their caregiver, and come to appreciate the importance of kindness and empathy in the world. Ultimately, the program helps kids develop “emotional literacy” and learn that, as Gordon says, “heartwork is as vital as brainwork.” After decades of independent research, ROE has been found to reduce aggression; increase sharing, caring, and inclusion; and promote resilience, wellbeing, and mental health. Who knew that babies could be such powerful teachers?
Culture of empathy takeaway: When a workplace feels unsafe, anxiety goes up, conflicts emerge, and people are afraid to speak up and take risks, all of which have negative consequences for organizational success. Ensuring psychological safety at work has never been more important, especially to the younger generation of talent. Encouraging people to express their feelings reminds us that we have complex lives, identities, roles, and responsibilities and gives us permission to be more authentic. This, in turn, increases belonging, trust, and wellbeing.
Excerpt from Purposeful Empathy ends here.
Anita Nowak, PhD is a certified coach and founder of Purposeful Empathy by Design, a boutique advisory firm that helps leaders and organizations create cultures of empathy. She also advises family offices and foundations to translate their philanthropic goals into social impact.
Anita is passionate about mentoring the next generation of changemakers and teaches Leadership, Ethics in Management, and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University, where she was named Professor of the Year in 2014 and 2019 by the Management Undergraduate Society.
Anita is a multiple TEDx and keynote speaker and author of Purposeful Empathy: Tapping Our Hidden Superpower for Personal, Organizational, and Social Change. She also hosts a podcast and YouTube series by the same name, dedicated to amplifying the voices of people from around the globe who understand the world needs more empathy – and are doing something about it.