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Author's profile photo Jonathan Becher

I Smell A Rat: Empathy In Business

In collaboration with author Gary Hamel and the Management Innovation Exchange (The MIX), SAP launched a crowd-source initiative which poses the question:

What is the one thing you’d change to help organizations unleash and organize human potential across boundaries?

As I was researching my own answer around the notion of “empathy in business”, I found a Washington Post article titled:A New Model of Empathy: The Rat. It discusses a Science/AAAS study which showed that rats would rather free other caged rats than eat food made readily available to them. The rats demonstrated a specific type of empathy characterized by “selfless behavior” or “helping activity” – a trait previously only associated with primates. Psychologists refer to it as prosocial behavior.

Rats as an exemplar of empathy!?! If rodents can exhibit the capacity to understand and feel the emotions experienced by their fellow rats – even when they aren’t getting anything in return – then we humans certainly have little excuse.

Sure, there are studies that say leaders must show empathy and that people who lack this trait are not good managers. There is also data connecting emotional intelligence to the bottom line of organizations. While this is all true, it’s not the primary reason why I think empathy is critically important in business.

Empathy is important because businesses get weighed down by complex organizational structure and silos. We get caught up in fighting for our own individual needs, as opposed to looking at the bigger picture and “higher purpose” associated with what we’re doing. For example, managers are often protective of their own budget even if reallocating a portion outside their team will create greater impact overall. Instead of having an end-to-end view of what will maximize group or company success, we focus on what will increase our own success. Decisions are driven by thoughts about “my” people, “my” budget, “my” agenda.

In simple terms, empathy means putting yourself into someone else’s shoes. If you take a moment to see their perspective, you will see more of the big picture. From there it becomes much clearer what is in the best interest of the business. Showing empathy requires a fundamental change in mindset. The more we can actively remove ourselves from our own silos, the better off we will collectively be.

And by the way, the next time you think you “smell a rat”, behave like one instead. You’ll be leading by example.

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      Author's profile photo Andy Silvey
      Andy Silvey

      Hi Jonathan,

      thank you for another thought provoking blog.

      Regarding budgets, I have never agreed with the principle or understood the common paradox which I have observed in many companies during my journey, the principle of spending budget on whatever at the end of the year, because if the remaining budget is not spent, then next year's budget will be less.

      Companies need to find a way to:

      . agree a Division/Team/Manager's budget for the following year

      . encourage the Manager to achieve the agreed goals with less than the allocated budget

      . reward the achievement of not spending everything

      . and if the Division/Manager/Team need the same budget or more the following year, not to punish them with a smaller budget because they failed didn't spend everything this year

      I totally agree with you regarding the empathy, and helping other Teams/Divisions with available budget.

      I have said it before and I say it again, why oh why do large companies not practice the simple household economics which we practice at home ?

      At home if we allocate xyz $ for a capital expenditure project, a piece of furniture or  black goods for the living room, and then as a result of circumstances we are able to realise the project at a reduced price, perhaps an unexpected furniture sale at our favourite supplier, then we have xyz $ left over from the allocated budget which can be used for the children, or the kitchen or the garden, or the holiday etc.

      If we think of these entities in household economics, the children fund, the kitchen fund, the living room fund, the garden fund, the holiday fund as divisions in the company then you are totally right, if the Management culture was encouraged to achieve goals without using the whole budget and savings could be shared across divisions based upon a consensus then the result would be magical.

      All the best and thanks again,



      Author's profile photo Former Member
      Former Member

      Interesting topic, empathy, but I have a different view on it:


      1. Indeed, empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but it’s not polishing their shoes, letalone giving them your shoes, which is what a lot of people think! Empathy is not (just) for good samaritans. It’s for anybody that wants to get on with anybody else, but that cooperation can also be for “selfish” reasons!
      2. A good example of empathy (or lack of it) is the way that management communicates major reorganisations. These usually affect the work and, indeed, the lives of many people, and not always in a positive way. Empathy is not about making everybody happy, because you can’t, but it is about understanding how people will feel about the reorganisation and providing clear, credible answers to the many questions they will have. One of the first questions is always “why are you doing this?”, because the people also want to understand where management is coming from, and an answer like “it was a management decision” is completely useless. You can tell a child “because I said so”, but you can’t tell somebody who’s afraid to lose their job “because management said so”. Yet, I’m sure it happens all the time.
      3. Based on the above definition of empathy, I don’t really agree with the budgeting example. Here, it is the budgeting system, which is at fault, not a lack of empathy from managers. In fact, the best managers will still use empathy to understand where the other managers (their competitors) are coming from (what they are trying to achieve, how much budget they will need for that etc), in order to secure the maximum budget for themselves!
      4. Another example is performance management systems, like the infamous “stack rank” system Steve Ballmer introduced at Microsoft. Again, it’s the system, which is at fault, because it makes all employees each other competitors. Nevertheless, the smartest employees will use empathy to understand where others are coming from, and use that to their own advantage.
      5. In the 2 examples above, you can’t blame employees and managers to use their empathy to their own advantage, because that’s what the system tells them to do and that’s what everybody else is doing too. After all, I don’t know if rats look over around to see what other rats are doing, but people certainly look around to see if others are protecting their budgets, bonuses etc, and, if they are, are you really going to turn the other cheek and look at the higher goals of the company? I think not ;o)
      6. Based on the above, it’s not empathy companies should try to achieve, but cooperation (between employees, managers, departments etc), in order to achieve the overall goals of the company. Empathy is a key ingredient for that cooperation, but empathy, alone, is not enough. You need management systems (and IT systems, like ERP ;o) that encourage cooperation, rather than discouraging it, and allow people to use their empathy for the common good, rather than just their own good.
      Author's profile photo Tom Van Doorslaer
      Tom Van Doorslaer

      I agree with Maarten. (on most points. not entirely on point 6)

      Empathy != Sympathy

      Regarding point 3: It's not about budgets, nor empathy. Spending money in the right places is about a clear vision!

      Management (on all levels) is about 3 main area's: A vision of where to go and what to achieve, a strategy to get there (budget, planning, organization), and the people to get you there (which you have to keep motivated).

      Empathy can help you (as a manager) to keep the people in your team on the same route.

      Coming back to point 6: It's not empathy that business need to achieve, it's not systems either, it's a Vision (darnit)

      (except if your vision is to create the best darn systems in the world)

      Author's profile photo Audrey Stevenson
      Audrey Stevenson

      SAP Mentor Thorsten Franz wrote a thought-provoking blog on SCN about empathy a while back: Business Value of Empathy? Handling "Difficult" Situations, Turning Crises into Wins. Both the blog and the comment string deserve a read for those who haven't already seen them (or a re-read if you have).