Entering the Business World? Flex Your Empathy Muscle

We tend to think of successful businessmen and women as strong-minded and lacking in emotion. This is how they are typically portrayed in films and books and rarely are traits like empathy and kindness associated with successful entrepreneurs. But it’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that empathy is crucial in the start-up world; if we can’t put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and see things from their perspective, how can you make successful decisions about which direction to take the business?

Empathy is the skill of seeing things from someone else’s perspective and understanding how they might think (cognitive empathy) and how they might feel (emotional empathy) in a given situation. Carly Fiorina, the former head of Hewlett Packard, speaking at a conference, said that leadership is about making a positive difference and that it cannot be done without empathy. At the same panel event on empathy, a Professor of Business at Maryland University, Jonathan Aberman, said that the most important characteristic in an entrepreneur is empathy because without it a start-up founder wouldn’t be able to see the world around them and adapt accordingly.

In fact Steve Jobs reportedly never commissioned any market research because he thought it was better to see the world through his own eyes and make the right choices accordingly. The current Apple CEO, Tim Cook, told graduates at MIT, “People will try to convince you that you should keep empathy out of your career. Don’t accept this false premise.”

Empathy has a buzzy status now; not only are top Business schools teaching it on MBA courses, for example at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business but many companies train their employees in it. We too can build it up in our everyday lives, better preparing ourselves for future jobs. According to Psychology Professor, Jamil Zaki, who runs the Social Neuroscience Lab at Stanford University, empathy is like a muscle that can be built and trained in the following five ways:

5 of the best ways to strengthen your empathy:

  1. Listen actively: practise active listening by observing nonverbal cues and focusing on the intended meaning and feelings of the person you are speaking with. You can practise this first in a low-risk environment, perhaps with your friends and family.
  2. Read fiction: read literature that explores personal relationships and emotions, exploring the heart rather than the head. Fictional literature exposes you to the inner workings of characters you don’t get to ‘meet’ in real life.
  3. Challenge yourself: undertaking challenging experiences which push you outside your comfort zone and putting yourself in environments where people are from different backgrounds can help humble you. It will also give you a better appreciation for other people.
  4. Cultivate your curiosity: What can you learn from different people? Curious people ask lots of questions, which can lead them to develop a stronger understanding of people around them.
  5. Practise mindfulness: meditation and mindfulness are all about focusing on your own inner workings and emotions, as well as thinking about the present. One definitely needs to be wholly ‘present’ if we are to empathise with them. There are plenty of mindfulness guides available, including Sleep Sound on Spotify.



The MBA gets emotional | Financial Times (ft.com)

Why the MBA is still a gamechanging qualification | Postgraduates | The Guardian

Empathy in Business: Indulgence or Invaluable? (forbes.com)

Making Empathy Central to Your Company Culture (hbr.org)


Sleep Sound