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Author's profile photo Jan Penninkhof

Debunking “empathy”

/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/empathy_belly_165409.jpgIn recent blogs, conferences and unconferences, there has been a good deal of emphasis on the importance of empathy in a business environment. And although empathy is definitely important, I just refused to believe that it is the holy grail that will automatically lead to success.

Empathy is important. It is the foundation of both altruism and collaboration. Without it, the world and the role of human species wouldn’t have evolved in the way it did. It is also a fact that empathy seems to be disappearing from our current “it’s all about me” culture. Narcisissm is flourishing and this study found that 30% of young people were classified as narcissistic.

Narcissism and lack of empathy is unwanted in society and leads to excesses like the murder of James Bulger:

Two-year-old James Bulger was separated from his mother in a shopping center in Liverpool, England. A security camera showed two ten-year-olds, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, leading the toddler away. The boys threw more than twenty bricks at the two-year-old, kicked him, tore off his lower lip, stripped him, and possibly molested him. They then left James’s body on the tracks to appear as though the murder were accidental, and went into a video store to watch cartoons on television.

It is not a surprise that many people want to turn this around and get people to be more empathic. Unfortunately, this has almost led to an empathy craze. Empathy is mentioned during many leadership talks and there are shelfloads of books about it: “The Age of Empathy,” “The Empathy Gap,” “The Empathic Civilization,” “Teaching Empathy,” etc. During #SITNL I even wondered if empathy hasn’t just become a popular buzz-word:

However, a business is not the same as a society, and I wondered if empathy would also make a business run better. After giving it thought, I’m afraid that beg to differ in that area. As a matter of fact, I have the feeling that both the corporate as well as the political world are perhaps dragged too much into “empathy thinking”, with too much talk and too little vigor and progression.

Management is not a popularity contest and there are several examples that underline this. Take for example Steve Jobs, admired by many, but when it came down to working with people, he was a merciless tyrant. Another example is Richard Branson, who even grins like a shark.

It is not the nice guys that make the difference. But because of their personality, they are able to put down something very good. German philosopher Nietzsche once said: “Die Starken streben ebenso naturnotwendig auseinander, als die Schwachen zueinander.” Being in the game not to make friends sounds harsh, but it does make sense if you see Steve Jobs and Richard Branson in action.


The many “rescue packages” that Greece has received have been an interesting example in politics. Because they were all too little too late, the Greece’s debts have increased even further. Economists agree that quick and adequate measures would have helped, but politicians of the Euro countries wouldn’t have made friends with their voters.

In this time of economic downturn, we need inspiring, strong managers and leaders. Managers that are able to innovate and politicians that can help us to conquer the economic crisis. People that are not always very empathic, but step up and dare to take necessary, unpopular decisions. Enough of the touchy feely stuff, and back to action please!

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      Author's profile photo Jansi Rani Murugesan
      Jansi Rani Murugesan

      Hi Jan,

      In TechEd Bangalore, we had a same discussion with Lakshman Pachineela Seshadri about different cases (like you mentioned above) where its difficult to show empathy...

      After all my observation is the also the same, To show Empathy you must need "Courage" 🙂 ..



      Author's profile photo Jan Penninkhof
      Jan Penninkhof
      Blog Post Author

      Hey Jansi,

      Thanks for your comment. I have had this discussion with some of my peers as well. As it led to quite a good debate, I thought I would try to provoke some thoughts through this blog as well.

      By the way, I have found the opposite true as well: To switch off your sense of empathy and make unpopular decisions, you also often need courage.



      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Hi Jan - I like the post and agree with your comments about inspiring, strong managers who can encourage innovation. It's also important to remember that leaders should lead from the front, by example not hide away in ivory towers issuing orders.

      Author's profile photo Jan Penninkhof
      Jan Penninkhof
      Blog Post Author

      Can't agree with you more Tim! As a lot of work actually involves people business, it is important to provide people with a sense of being by giving them emotional support and encouragement. It's impossible to do that from an ivory tower, disconnected from the outside world.

      Author's profile photo Jon Reed
      Jon Reed

      Very spicy topic Jan!

      It's always good to keep a critical eye towards the latest buzzword. It would be a shame if the power of true empathy got lost in a sea of overhyped literature about a new "magic pill" we can all swallow.

      I am always opposed to reductionist thinking myself, meaning I don't believe anything in life can be reduced to one variable.

      I would suggest for this discussion we would break out empathy into three categories:

      1. broader need for empathy in society (particularly for those different than ourselves). I think it's hard to argue we don't need more of that type of empathy. I would suspect you would agree.

      2. the question of empathy in business, particularly in leadership. That seems to be the crux of your argument is to question empathy for effective business leadership.

      3. a topic you didn't get into, but one which SAP has emphasized in workshops etc: the role of empathy in software design, specifically empathy for the user experience. I would argue we need a lot more understanding of the end user in software design and if empathy plays a role in that, I'm all for it. SAP could use some more of that and it's not the only company that could. Curious to hear your thoughts there.

      As for number 2, it's hard to deny that leaders can become compromised if they cannot bear the thought of how their decisions might impact others. So there are clearly limits to empathy for leadership. That said I would not argue that empathy is bad for business leaders. Some of the decisions around massive layoffs and how those were handled has been anything but empathetic. Executives cashing in their stock options at sinking ship companies while employees' stock options were liquidated or 401Ks reduced - a bit more empathy is clearly in order there. 

      To me it's less about empathy and more that true business leaders cannot get caught up in the short game of worrying about everyone's feelings. But a broader understanding of what plagues a particular industry, which arguably dovetails with empathy, is necessary. To take your examples, Jobs leading Apple's resurgence with the iPhone etc was arguably based on empathy in terms of wanting to make people's lives better and give them devices that were far more intuitive and relevant.

      Branson meanwhile was certainly inspired by the absurdities of the typical air traveler including himself and wanted to deliver a better experience. You could make the argument there is a balance there between understanding the needs of your users/customers (empathy) but also striking forth boldly without being underminded by constant worrying about how others will be affected.

      It's a good discussion. Thanks.

      Author's profile photo Fred Verheul
      Fred Verheul

      Hi Jon and Jan (or Jan and Jon 🙂 ),

      I was going to point out the vast difference between context 3 (which really is the context of all the buzz from SAP that Jan identified) and 2 (leadership, and apparently the topic of this blog). So thanks for having done that already Jon.

      I've not much to say about 2, as I don't know these 2 gentlemen (Jobs + Branson) good enough. As long as there are no compelling arguments in favor of empathy (can't think of any myself), I can go along with Jan on this one.

      On 3: the buzz coming from SAP is IMHO ok, but we need more action on it. It's a good thing that SAP is recognizing its importance and is leading this effort by organizing workshops and (un-)conferences, but it has to pick up steam in the whole community. To this end, there can't be enough buzz around empathy in Design Thinking 🙂 . I hope this comment can help in creating more buzz 😉 .

      Jan: as Jon said, I'm also interested in your opinion on this (3) topic.

      Cheers, Fred

      Author's profile photo Jan Penninkhof
      Jan Penninkhof
      Blog Post Author

      Hi Jon,

      Didn't look at it in the way that you did. I think I was trying to generalize it a bit too much. I really like how you took that apart into 3 different areas.

      Honestly, I haven't really studied the subject really thoroughly and also have (unfortunately) not been able to attend e.g. Teched sessions on this topic. But do have an opinion, which can of course be influenced by good other opinions, and am willing to learn. From that perspective, your comment really helps!

      As for the types of empathy you differentiated:

      1. Yes, I'm afraid we need more empathy in society. Last week the Dutch newspapers have been full of another incident in which a linesman was kicked to death by 16-year-olds during a soccer match. The linesman was the father of one of the kids playing for the other team. The worst thing is that a reporter went to the school of the culprits and interviewed some of their class mates, resulting into responses like: "they probably had a reason for it" and "sometimes you just don't know how hard you kick someone". Maybe in this case we shouldn't even talk about more empathy, but about less antipathy first.

      2. You nailed that right with the question: "is empathy required for effective business leadership?". I think that's what my blog was mainly about, except that it also applies to politics and e.g. the indecisiveness of the European parliament. I guess what I was trying to say was that desperate cases sometimes require desperate remedies. They are not always popular, easy ways out, and could e.g. be driven by survival rather than empathy.

      3. In terms of design, it's probably a welcome, yet not necessarily a crucial element. Sometimes it suffices if you know what you want to build. E.g. when Apple built its iPhone, it also didn't go through rounds of interviews, but had a clear vision about what they wanted to accomplish. As far as I understood from Steve Job's biography, when it came down to feedback, it was more or less limited to the feedback of the man himself. As mentioned in your comment, Richard Branson started his airline because he was annoyed with the current airlines and probably had a couple of improvements in his head while doing so.

      On the other hand, having participated in 2 Innojams in which Design Thinking was part of the exercise, I also like what we did there and how empathy played a role.

      So I guess my answer would be an "It depends" on what you're trying to accomplish and whether perhaps "research, definition and ideation" stages have already taken place in (someone's head?)

      Author's profile photo Marilyn Pratt
      Marilyn Pratt

      As a person (together with other folks like Heike van Geel ) who helps wordsmith many of these "kitten killing" concepts and helps socialize them to the wider SAP community (including our executive management) : ex. Design Thinking, Inclusion, Empathy, there is great satisfaction in the thought that we are even talking about these ideas in a business context.  I love the power to make these words resonate with others because (as Peter Graf wrote in an internal post) concepts like diversity aren't just about "fairness" .  There IS a business imperative related to driving your innovation by inclusive, empathic thinking. And getting people to talk about these things is a first step in changing some rather unfortunate "status quos". (lapses in understanding of user experience, consensus thinking which sometimes = not smart groupthink , homogeneous boards.)

      So I'm glad there is some challenging of these "buzzwords" and I'm glad I waited before responding to you Jan because, as always,, the community says things much better than I could have (thanks Jonathan Reed Tom Van Doorslaer ,

      Lakshman Pachineela Seshadri ,for example).

      Interestingly, I shared the same (myopic?) view of Steve Jobs that Jan aired.  What I learned lately was quite startling.  I began to look more closely at the people Steve Jobs hired and also read more about the “why” (it seems like empathy played a big role in Jobs’ selection of Tim Cook)  And apropos Apple, I myself questioned whether Apple embraces inclusion with its rather obvious white dude executive demographics (no women to be found) and then Frank Koehntopp revealed this factoid about Cook .  So perhaps things aren't always as simplistic as they may seem.

      I'm also glad the distinction was made between Empathy and Sympathy (two very disparate words) and Tom nailed it in his response.

      So I'd rather endanger a few kittens along the way than not have these conversations at all.  Thanks Jan for giving the opportunity to debate and evaluate.

      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer

      Hi Jan,

      I think you're mixing up Empathy with Sympathy.

      Take the examples you gave about Steve Jobs.

      Steve Jobs showed little or no sympathy for his coworkers and customers. He was an absolute tyrant. But he was very good at identifying what his customers wanted and needed. That's what empathy is about.

      It's not about feeling pity for someone and sharing a glass of wine over a dramatic movie, passing the tissues along.

      It's about being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and identify what they need, what drives them, what they want.

      You can do this in a warm way, or you can do this in a very cold way. ("I want to know what my customers want so I can exploit them like the piggybanks they are.... harharhar")

      PS: Branson seems to actually be a pretty sympathetic guy. He shows a lot of appreciation to his employees and regularly puts them in the spotlight.

      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Nice comments from all here.  Especially for Leaders who can practice Empathy (as nicely explained by Tom Van Doorslaer)  can help them to take the right position/stand however hard the decision is going to be.  It gives them the impetus, that is less damaging /disparaging (if it is a hard decision) for the affected parties, and emerge as 'good' leaders. Else we see 'apathy' reflected in their decisions and can bring any organization down.

      Practicing 'Empathy' is also contextual.  It looks silly to say that you need to empathize with perennial wrong doers and let them off the hook.  However if you like to solve the problem of reducing the number of wrong doers or rehabilitating the wrong doers, then what do we do? Empathy again!  Without empathizing, do we know what is causing them to behave in the way they do?

      Empathizing also means that you are not going to be tough or firm in your dealings.  That means we are 'sympathizing'.   Therefore practicing Empathy needs humility and courage (As Seung Chan Lim (Slim) puts it - to immerse into the 'users' context.  This cannot be taught, can only be experienced. 

      Not everyone can be social scientists or ethnographers.  Can we pick up some traits from them? Like practicing empathy?  I guess, we can!

      Author's profile photo Jelena Perfiljeva
      Jelena Perfiljeva

      I felt a reference to a child death was totally unnecessary and disturbing.

      That aside, the thoughts on the subject seemed a bit mixed up to me or maybe we just have different definitions of empathy. Anticipating your customer's needs takes certain amount of empathy and that what makes the businesses successful. I'm not familiar with his biography but seriously doubt Steve Jobs would have succeeded if he was a total jerk completely deprived of any empathy.

      I believe at least in the most recent context "empathy" means an ability to imagine oneself in somebody else's place, an ability to view things from somebody else's point of view and to feel what others feel. With this in mind, I don't really see it as just something "touchy-feely" and in a conflict with being a great leader (not to be confused with a tirant).

      Author's profile photo Mark Finnern
      Mark Finnern

      Hi Jan,

      Wow. According to your post empathy has no place in business, as it only slows down the important tasks of making decisions and moving forward.

      You proof your argument with: Another example is Richard Branson, who even grins like a shark.

      Really? Grinning like a shark proofs that he doesn't have empathy? A quick search for "Empathy Richard Branson" shows that he even has empathy for Occupy Wall Street:

      Here is an article that actually sees Richard's empathy as the reason for his Billion Dollar Empire: Billion Dollar Empathy: Branson Style

      Fast Company writes, that Empathy is the most powerful Leadership tool:

      Influence is not about me-in-my-skin at all. It is about the person I want to influence perceiving that my idea is in his or her interests. That’s it. And as we’ve said, the surest way to do that is to become the other person and go from there:

      · Deeply understand your own needs and interests: Go beneath the surface to unearth what you reallywant and why.

      · Become the other. See through their eyes, think with their mind; sense its patterns. Consider what is truly in their interests.

      · Go from there. Show how your idea is in their interests, either directly or through an exchange you offer.

      I think we do good by bringing more empathy into our corporations, Mark.