Empathy, Capitalist Tool

Business leaders lose contact with what clients and consumers are experiencing. Leaders get entangled in solving legal issues, reacting to the competition, or implementing the technologies required to sustain operations, and lose touch with the empathic core of business.

Yet empathy is never needed more than when it seems there is no time for it.

Empathy is the ultimate capitalist tool: No business or enterprise can operate for 

Mr Moneybags from the game of Monopoly

Mr Moneybags from the game of Monopoly

long, much less flourish, without empathy to facilitate teamwork, coordination between customers and sales persons, employees and employers, leaders and staff, and stake-holders at all levels.

When those in the executive office are surveyed, some 60% of executives believe that their organizations are empathic, whereas 24% of their employees agree (see Gentry 2016; Gentry et al. 2007). An empathy deficit?

Empathy and empathy training are deployed in corporations to provide executive leaderships skills such as mentoring subordinates, developing teams, building a consensus for action, facilitating engagement with issues, setting priorities, assuming responsibility, and supporting self-esteem through getting in touch with values and community.

Line of business managers deploy  “therapeutic strategies” to reduce conflict in the workplace and create an efficient, even harmonious, environment of teamwork, cooperation, trust, relatedness, loyalty, and care. Happy people close more deals. Happy people work overtime with fewer complaints. Happy people write software code with fewer bugs. Happy people cost less.

Value creation in the late capitalist economy relies on the exchange of empathy and positive emotions. Turn empathy “on” for coworkers, customers, and insiders; turn empathy “off” for the competition, compliance, and for purposes of efficiency and speed.

Empathy is not an “on-off” switch, but rather a dial or tuner that works though a continuum of shades of empathy. The “on-off” switch limits possibilities whereas the dial or tuner expands possibilities.

If the corporation were a machine, which is a well-worn yet all-too-accurate metaphor, empathy would be the indispensable lubricant that keeps the various parts working together without overheating.

The number of corporations that are “over heating” and “going up in flames,” with dramatic news hitting the global media, is one index of organizations experiencing the most severe empathy breakdowns. The explicit symptom is predictably a revenue shortfall, but behind the headlines lurk dysfunctional relationships, cynicism, shaming, bullying, arrogance, a culture of turf wars, loss of authenticity, integrity outages, self-dealing, governing through chaos, lack of leadership, and lack of empathy.

Empathy has a dark side too, which shows up in business dynamics.

On a bad day, stress drives everyone crazy and capitalism becomes the psychopath factory, in which empathy becomes a way of manipulating others (e.g., Adams 2016). The squeaky wheel gets the grease; but the nail that sticks out gets hammered down—steam rolled. Whether or not one authentically understands, “gets,” the experience of the customer, employee, administrator, or stake-holder is irrelevant to the Machiavellian Empath (distinct from the Natural Empath!), whose priority is scoring points on a check list of behaviors that appear to be empathic.

Yet, empathy lives even in Machiavellian empathy, which, paradoxically, delivers many of empathy’s intrinsic benefits in spite of itself. Even if one wants to present the appearance of being empathic for propaganda (i.e., marketing) purposes, while continuing to engage in questionable business practices behind the scenes, empathic reality has a way of catching up with appearances.

The strain towards consistency in human behavior causes people who call out the value of empathy, even if hypocritically, to create an environment in which the practice of empathy gains credibility, strength, and validity.

Even when empathy gets “shoved under the rug,” the bulge in the rug eventually gets bigger and bigger and comes into plain view as one trips over it.

The cynical sales person understands the value of taking a walk in the customer’s shoes, if only to sell him another pair.

The wise (and empathic) sales person understands that in any business that allows for product differentiation or distinctions in service level agreements, building a relationship with the customer is the royal road to solution selling. Empathy is the secure path to getting access to the customer and her good graces.

If the customer “gets it” that her concerns are being listened to, then she will open up with what is really bothering her, and the sales person will have an opportunity to position the product or service as the solution. The deal is closed.

The things that cause you to excel at getting business results—beating the competition, solving technical problems, dealing with legal issues—do not necessarily expand your empathy (e.g., Battarbee et al 2012). What then expands your empathy? Driving out cynicism, shame, bullying, devaluing language, and so on, gives empathy a chance to expand into the transactional space created by eliminating the baggage of inauthenticity, breakdowns in integrity, and emotional resignation.

Bureaucracies are famously faceless, formal, impersonal—and unempathic. Bureaucracies create double binds of compliance, ambiguous regulations, and uncertainty for the customers, participants, and citizens. Dealing with organizational resistance to empathy often requires speaking truth to power. But speaking this truth in such a way—with appeals to the professional consciences of the leaders, constructive criticism, and humor—that the organization is able to get in touch with the advantages of practicing empathy.

Empathy training in an organization consists in surfacing the resistances in the organization to empathy. These resistances include pervasive fear, risk aversion, resignation, and cynicism in the organization that lurks just beneath the surface. Interpret the resistance: “It is quite understandable that you would be cynical, given what you have been through, but that cynicism is not who you (we) authentically are.” Empathy training overcomes the “stuckness” and the issues that get surfaced, designing agreements and committing to “what it’s really gonna take,” envisioning organizational and individual goals, and then taking action to implement the agreements on schedule.

Decision makers regularly deny having a budget for empathy training. However, when executives are asked about the value to their organizations of reducing conflict, eliminating turf wars, expanding teamwork, enhancing innovation, and improving communication and cooperation that such empathy training delivers, the answer shifts: How soon can we get it? Empathy is perceived as a source of creating possibilities, overcoming conformity through innovation, and leading from a future of possibilities.

Empathy is on the critical path to serving customers, segmenting markets, positioning products (and substitutes), psyching out the competition—not exactly empathy but close enough?—building teams and being a leader who actually has followers.

Empathy makes the difference for workers between banging on a rock with a hammer and building a cathedral. The motions are the same: Raise hammer; bring down hammer with a bang. One person is breaking rocks in the blistering hot sun; the other building a cathedral. When the application of empathy exposes and strengthens the foundation of community, then expanding empathy becomes synonymous with expanding the business.

Building customer communities, building stakeholder communities, building teams that work, are the basis for product innovation, brand loyalty, employee commitment, satisfied service level agreements, and sustained or growing market share. Can revenue be far behind?

As noted, never is empathy needed more in business than when it seems there is no time for it. Building a business, growing a market, innovating in products and services, are all about building teams, networks of people, and communities. Empathy is at the foundation of community. Therefore, empathy is the foundation of business.

Though business leaders understandably dislike being given yet another assignment, practicing empathy has to start at the top if it is to have any sustained hope subsequently of percolating up from the bottom. “CEO” now means “chief empathy officer.”

Sometimes leaders don’t need more data, leaders just need expanded empathy. I hasten to add that in the final analysis both empathy and data are on the critical path to satisfied buyers, employees, and stakeholders. If the product or service is wrappered in empathy, has an empathic component as part of the service level agreement, gets traction in the market, creates a clearing for the customer to feel “gotten” and well-served, and beats the competition’s less empathic competing offering, then the ultimate and empowering validation of empathy is at hand. We do not just have empathy. We have empathy, capitalist tool.

Okay, I have read enough. I want to order the book: Empathy Lessons. Order your copy of Empathy Lessons, the book. Click here.


Adams, Tristam Vivian. (2016). The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books.

Battarbee, Katja and Jane Fulton Suri, and Suzanne Gibbs Howard. (2012). Empathy on the edge: Scaling and sustaining a human-centered approach in the evolving practice of design, IDEO: http://fliphtml5.com/gqbv/uknt/basic [checked on 11/31 /2017].

Gentry, William. (2016). Rewards multiply with workplace empathy, Businessolver: https://www.scoop.it/topic/empathy-in-the-workplace?page=9 [checked 02/02/2020].

Gentry, William and Todd J. Weber, Golnaz Sadri. (2007). Empathy in the workplace: A tool for effective leadership, Washingtonpost.com: http:// www.ccl.org/wpcontent/uploads/ 2015/04/EmpathyInTheWorkplace.pdf [checked on 02/02/2020].

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project

Categories: Empathy, empathy and business, empathy capitalist tool, empathy consulting, empathy training

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