Empathy – who needs it?

I recently introduced action learning to an international group of twenty-eight engineers and business people before they split up into smaller action learning sets. We were discussing the applications of action learning and the types of skills that action learning encourages participants to practice and develop. When I mentioned empathy as one of the skills, there was a murmur within the group that empathy wasn’t important in business and, in any case, ‘wasn’t it something that women did?’ That got me thinking.

It’s probably fair to say that empathy is usually filed in the ‘soft skills’ folder. Soft skills are often referred to in a disparaging way, as though they were far inferior to ‘hard skills’, which are presumably learned technical skills. The Collins English dictionary defines the term ‘soft skills’ as ‘…desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge.’ Does this imply that you only need empathy in some roles and not in others? And, furthermore, that if you don’t have it you can’t learn it? Surely neither notion can be correct.

In an interview with Daniel Goleman1, Harvard Business School professor Bill George says that expressing empathy and being able to walk in someone else’s shoes is an essential quality for all leaders, but that many leaders see this as the ‘soft’ side of leadership. He goes on to say that after 30 years in business he knows that being genuinely empathic is the hard side. ‘It’s easy to get the numbers right… Really having empathy for people is hard work for most of us but it’s the key element.’

Defining empathy

Thinking back to my group, I decided we needed to work out what empathy meant before we could properly assess its importance in our various management and leadership contexts. In the above interview with Bill George, Goleman describes three types of empathy.

Firstly, cognitive empathy is the understanding of how other people think. Secondly, emotional empathy involves a ‘different circuitry’ in the brain and enables us to feel what another person feels and thereby develop resonance and rapport. And thirdly, empathic concern involves a different circuitry again ‘the same as when we care for our children’ and helps us not only understand how someone thinks and feels but also show that we care about it – it matters.

Can empathy be a weakness?

Having watched the Goleman/George video clip with my action learning group and then discussed what we’d seen and heard, individuals were still concerned that if they showed ‘too much’ empathy, they would be seen as weak leaders and managers with a corresponding loss of respect and status. Addressing this concern, Belinda Parmar in a Guardian report says that the

“Failure to understand empathy is born of a simple misconception; empathy isn’t about people-pleasing. It’s not about being a pushover. Instead, empathy, the ability to understand the impact your actions have on others, is essential to being a player in the corporate game. It needs to be embedded from the boardroom right through to the shop floor.”2

A 2015 study examining the role that empathy plays in effective leadership in the workplace claims that: ‘Ineffective managers are expensive, costing organisations millions each year in direct and indirect costs… ineffective managers make up half of today’s organisational management pool.’3 In any workplace we need to understand people who have very different perspectives, experiences, and frames of reference. If we can’t do that then we risk being ineffective or even damaging. The same study also reports that:

‘The ability to understand what others are feeling is a skill that clearly contributes to effective leadership. In some cultures, the connection between empathy and performance is particularly striking, placing an even greater value on empathy as a leadership skill.’

The costs of failure to empathise

It’s worth considering what can happen when we fail to empathise. Recently, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz reacted with what seemed like irritation when a legitimate paying passenger was dragged off a United Airlines flight and beaten. Munoz showed no empathy for the passenger at all, at first claiming that the passenger was ‘belligerent’ thereby implying it was the passenger’s own fault. Munoz then took three attempts at apologising.

Munoz hangs on to his current post. But according to the Daily Telegraph5, United Airlines has been ‘pummelled’ on social media with #BoycottUnited being a popular hashtag. Since the incident, United’s shares are reported to have fallen 4.3 per cent, wiping out nearly $1 billion in market value.

More generally, it is reported that in the UK 13.1 million working days are lost each year because of stress, anxiety, or depression.6 The resultant cost is estimated at £1.17 billion. Could it be that at least some of the stress and anxiety is caused by workplace cultures where empathy is in short supply?7

Can empathy be learned?

Contrary to the implication in the dictionary definition above, and according to the CCL report3, empathy can be learned. Given enough time and the right kind of support, managers and leaders can develop and enhance (or perhaps simply awaken) their empathy skills through a variety of developmental opportunities and particularly through small group activities like action learning.

Coming back to the action learning sets above, it became evident in the subsequent work together that empathy – the ability to understand your impact on others and to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – is not a ‘soft’ superfluous accessory but is, in fact, a highly practical and valuable skill that helps shape actions, inspire motivation, and drive results. Participants in each of the four action learning sets ended their sessions with various reciprocal offers of skill and expertise sharing, practical offers of help with actions e.g. building web sites and designing processes, and open offers to talk more about specific operational situations.

In conclusion

Learning how to empathise needs to be accompanied by an authentic desire to show empathic concern. If we don’t do that then we risk, at the very least, being ineffective managers: a person working without empathy never gets the full picture. If, however, we give someone the feeling that what they are saying really matters to us, then we are being the kind of boss who inspires people and the kind of boss that everybody wants. Finally, I defer to poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou who writes simply: ‘People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’


1Daniel Goleman and Bill George: Authenticity and Empathy


2Belinda Parmar, The Guardian, 18 June, 2014. Beinda Parmar is ‘Chief Geek’ at www.theempathybusiness.co.uk



5 The Daily Telegraph, ‘United CEO Oscar Munoz says no one will be fired for dragging man off plane incident’. 18 April, 2017.

6 hrmagazine. “Sickness accounted for 131 million working days lost in 2011.” David Woods, May 16, 2012

7 Neuroscience – a fascinating insight into why action learning is so effective

Details of in-house action learning courses can be found here.

One thought on “Empathy – who needs it?”

  1. Fascinating article, John. It has got me thinking about how some of the specific practices in action learning can help build empathy. For example, at the start of an issue-holder’s ‘airtime’, they speak about their issue while other group members simply listen – no interruptions – for as long as the issue-holder wants to speak. This attentive listening provides an opportunity for group members to tune into the issue-holder’s emotions, as well as the facts of the issue. And one of the simplest but most effective questions in action learning is often ‘How do you feel about….?’ When the issue-holder experiences empathy with their feelings, it becomes possible for them to think about their issue in new ways. And hopefully, having experienced that, action learning participants are motivated to take this approach outside of the set meetings – because it works.

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