Warm Hearts, Cold Reality: How to Build Team Empathy

Empathetic leaders are not enough when an organization’s systems, processes, and decisions telegraph a lack of caring. Here are four strategies to fix the problem.

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It’s tough out there, right?

The business world is “dog eat dog”; you’re “swimming with sharks”; it’s like Lord of the Flies. Buck up, buttercup!

What’s funny about the way we talk about the brutality of life in organizations is that the metaphors themselves are wrong. Dogs don’t seek out other dogs in order to eat them; unprovoked shark attacks are incredibly infrequent; and when Lord of the Flies played out in real life when a group of schoolboys was marooned on an island, they actually cooperated and helped each other. They even set one boy’s broken leg successfully.1

When we stop maligning dogs, sharks, and schoolboys, studies on human nature show us to be pretty nice beings, at the core. One large-scale study showed that in a situation where generosity was being tested, people’s first impulses were unselfish ones: When people made up their minds quickly, they were more likely to share a pot of money.2 Wanting to do the right thing is hardwired into us from infancy; babies will pick a puppet that seems to help other puppets over a puppet that seems to behave cruelly, for example.3

So, what’s going on in organizations, then? How are we adding up basically decent people into agglomerations where empathy seems to be in such short supply? Recent data shows that only 41% of employees feel like someone cares about them at work.4 Other studies show that up to 92% of people seek out empathic organizations when looking for a job.5 Do you see the profound disconnect? So many of us want to feel cared about at work yet don’t feel that anyone does care.

When so much key talent seems in short supply, how do we fix the problem and create the sorts of empathic companies where people actually want to work?

Building Organizational Empathy

Organizations have already invested a great deal of time, money, and effort in teaching executives to be more empathetic. Not a cent or a minute of that is wasted. Studies show a strong positive correlation between direct reports’ accounts of their manager’s empathy and the ratings the manager receives from their own boss.6 In other words, empathic leaders make for better leaders.

Shaping empathic leaders is thus necessary but not sufficient. There’s a wonderful saying in the leadership development world: “Clean fish, dirty pond.” The idea: You might undertake fabulous efforts to improve leaders’ behavior on a particular dimension (cleaning the fish), but at the end of the day, they get put back in an environment full of the wrong cues (the dirty pond) … and the leader is stuck in in the muck again. Your wonderfully empathic leader struggles to operate in an environment where every system, process, and decision seems to telegraph a lack of caring.

So let’s instead look at the whole ecosystem of the organization. What levers are available to actually clean out the pond? How do you make empathy the organization’s steady state? Start with these four strategies.

1. Use Employee Personas to Gut-Check Decisions

At its root, empathy isn’t complicated — it’s being able to understand how your words or actions might make someone else feel. Testing key decisions against carefully considered employee personas can simulate this way of thinking on a corporate level.

Let’s take the past few years’ return-to-office (RTO) decisions as an example. An organization that intelligently thought through a diverse and provocative set of personas representing the people who would be affected by the decision would have gleaned the right responses to the inevitable barrage of questions and objections. Leaders would have had answers for employees in cities with difficult commutes, for working parents who needed flexibility at the beginning and end of the day, for managers wondering how to best schedule their time to interact with their teams, and so on. Employees might not have loved every answer (“No, we are not going to pay for parking”), but the fact that the organization had thought through varied scenarios would have demonstrated a basic understanding that people are different — which is a building block of demonstrating empathy.

Organizations can also achieve some quick wins on the empathy front through this kind of persona testing. In the above example, asking employees not to schedule in-office meetings too close to the beginning and end of the day would help long-haul commuters, working parents, and managers alike. It’s an empathic supplement to the core RTO decision, not an unmaking of that decision.

2. Assign Leaders to Own Key Pieces of the Employee Experience

Many of the least empathic actions organizations undertake are the byproduct of ghost decisions — decisions that no one consciously made (recently) and no one consciously owns, or ones that multiple people believe they own at the same time. For instance, employees often cite process overload (a prime driver of burnout) as an example of a lack of organizational empathy. An organization that cared, they note, wouldn’t pile multiple processes and critical deadlines onto employees at the same time; leaders would understand that the burden couldn’t be shouldered all at once. This point of view assumes a central “understander” — a figure about as real as the Easter Bunny. In reality, the processes bedeviling the employees are likely owned by an array of leaders; some may be “zombie processes” that have been going for a long time without updated input. Critically, no one owns the task of managing the burden in totality.

In reality, the processes bedeviling the employees are likely owned by an array of leaders.

Allocating key pieces of the employee experience to specific leaders to manage can inject empathy into situations where it is visibly missing. Organizations may also want to consider giving leadership roles that are focused on the employee experience more teeth — even by aligning them to operations instead of HR, a shift some forward-thinking organizations are making. Seeing employee experience as the sum of operational decisions gives organizations a platform for empathy: You’re tapping a group of leaders concretely to own how all of those decisions add up in an employee’s day-to-day life.

3. Fix Zombie Processes That Feel Rude

Some zombie processes that seem to lack empathy for employees have a specific origin: A long-ago leader with troubling behaviors had a particular way of handling something, and that way just stuck. Now it’s a broken or neutral process handled in a particularly unempathetic way.

In many companies, talent acquisition and performance management processes can be quite vulnerable to this phenomenon. During these two consequential activities, employees or prospective employees expect empathy but often don’t experience it. Leaders who lack natural empathy may cut corners when confronted with what seems like time-consuming people processes. Over time, especially if the unskilled leader is particularly influential, cutting corners may just become “how we do things.” Candidates are interviewed curtly and chaotically; promotion decisions are communicated without context. Important conversations are handled badly — not intentionally, but because standard organizational practice has people devoting minimal time and effort to discussions that matter tremendously.

Talent acquisition and performance management can be quite vulnerable to zombie processes.

Establishing concrete guidelines around crucial details can reorient these processes away from historical miscues and toward a more empathetic way of operating. Codifying small behaviors — like how much time to spend on informal back-and-forth at the beginning of an interview, or what words to use (and not use) when explaining why a promotion was denied — can ultimately lift the empathy waterline for surprisingly large groups of people.

4. Reset Norms to Enable Better Decisions on the Fly

Of course, not every behavior can be codified, not every moment of employee experience can be managed perfectly, and it would be backbreaking to match every decision against every possible persona. In so many cases, organizations rely on individuals making empathic decisions on the fly in an array of situations. How can organizations have an impact in these moments when no one is watching?

The answer is simple and comes back to our mistaken ideas about dogs, sharks, and schoolboys. It’s on all of us to do some resetting of norms about whether it’s OK to act with empathy — busting the myth that business has to be a bare-knuckles brawl. So much depends on whether leaders can understand the long-term calculus around not behaving empathically — the true cost of shaping an organization that doesn’t seem to care and where most people would not want to work.

Cynics may ask, “In the AI age, does empathy at work still matter?” In fact, as technology does more and more, we’re barreling toward a world where behaviors like empathy become the only thing that matters. A study that Capgemini conducted as the use of AI began to hit an inflection point found that an organization’s need for the entire spectrum of emotional intelligence might become up to six times greater as routine tasks are automated, leaving only the more emotionally challenging jobs for human workers.7 Today, as the AI journey truly takes off, building an empathic organization can begin to unlock the full spectrum of emotionally intelligent behaviors.

Empathy is the first step on that long road to creating the right environment for humans at work. It’s the nod that says, “I see your humanity. I see you. You matter.”

What organization wouldn’t want to send that message to the people who work there?



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series


1. E.S. Girden, “Cannibalism in Dogs,” Journal of Comparative Psychology 14, no. 3 (December 1932): 409-413; J. Kluger, “Are Shark Attacks Increasing? Here Are What the Data Say,” Time, July 7, 2023, https://time.com; and R. Bregman, “The Real Lord of the Flies: What Happened When Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for 15 Months,” The Guardian, May 9, 2020, www.theguardian.com.

2. A.F. Ward, “Scientists Probe Human Nature — and Discover We Are Good, After All,” Scientific American, Nov. 20, 2012, www.scientificamerican.com.

3. T. Aglietti, “Are We Born Good or Evil? (Naughty or Nice),” BBC Earth, accessed Feb. 13, 2024, www.bbcearth.com.

4. J. Harter, “In New Workplace, U.S. Employee Engagement Stagnates,” Gallup, Jan. 23, 2024, www.gallup.com.

5. M. Gonzales, “6 Ways to Become a More Empathetic Organization,” SHRM, June 13, 2022, www.shrm.org.

6. W.A. Gentry, T.J. Weber, and G. Sadri, “Empathy in the Workplace: A Tool for Effective Leadership,” PDF file (Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership, November 2011), https://cclinnovation.org.

7. C. Crummenerl, A. Pendlebury-Green, J. Buvat, et al., “Emotional Intelligence — the Essential Skillset for the Age of AI,” PDF file (Boston: Capgemini Research Institute, 2019), www.capgemini.com.

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