September 25, 2018

Applying empathy amid organisational tension

Empathy has become overused buzzword in the business world, where it is not always properly understood anymore. It has definitely lost its true meaning in the business landscape.

In my experience, it has its meaning because we haven’t fully understood what it truly means or the power it has to bring businesses to the next level. Take a look at Michael Ventura’s work with his award-winning agency Sub Rosa in applying empathy to elevate clients’ business success, or Satya Nadella’s work in using empathy to bring Microsoft to the next level.

Empathy is not about being weak or overly nice, and it is not even related to sympathy. It’s about digging deep and aiming to truly understand the other person and the situation to gain new insight and perspective to solve problems. Empathy definitely has its place in the business world.

However, applying can represent a challenge to a company’s culture in moments of change, creating different types of tension.

In the work that Sub Rosa did with General Electric (GE), Mr Ventura and his team observed four different key tensions to consider when applying empathy.

First, there is tension between objective and subjective decision-making. When it comes to decision-making, we make decisions based purely on facts or purely on our feelings — objective or subjectively respectively. In the business landscape, we are naturally objective. Hard data and facts drive decisions. But that doesn’t mean we ignore subjectivity.

Businesses today require more and more subjectivity. Subjective decisions should not simply reflect our own emotional state in the moment, but be made when the perspectives of others are considered in the equation. This opens up a whole new set of solutions to a problem.

To adapt to this tension in your decision-making process and make it more empathetic, fully consider the elements that influence the decision and prioritise each element. Then you can understand where to focus.

Second, there is tension in the organisational culture: top-down versus bottom-up. If you, as a business leader, want to apply empathy, understanding the flow in your organisation is important.

Organisations operating top-down have a rigid structure and chain of command. They promote high efficiency but engagement of people is low. On the other hand, bottom-up organisations do better at people engagement but fall back on efficiency amid a clutter of information and feedback.

To adjust this tension toward becoming more empathic, your organisation may need a more dynamic culture. As a business leader, you must be able to dynamically adapt to the conditions in your organisation. The culture will always change, adapting to organisational needs.

Third, you can observe tension when trying to solve problems through a human-centred design or through “ecosystemic” thinking. Human-centred design and thinking refers to problem-solving with a specified target in mind, while ecosystemic thinking relies on an ecosystem of various factors working together to solve a problem.

To lessen this tension, you need a better sense of your business ecosystem from within your organisation and extending outward to your customers. It broadens your perspective and your people will be better positioned to come up with solutions that respond better to the dynamics of a changing world.

Last, there is tension in terms of how you lead your people: is it passive or proactive? You may experience this tension when you’re caught between gathering insights and feedback for an empathetic response and the time constraints you’re facing.

Information clutter and overload can pose a threat in organisations when applying empathy because it encourages sharing. Consequently, you must understand your own limits and those of your organisation. Ask yourself what your limits are, what is too much and what is considered the right amount of information to make decisions.

Applying empathy in your organisation can cause any or all of these four tensions observed by Mr Ventura to emerge, and possibly others that are unique to your organisation. So if you want to apply empathy in your organisation while operating in a volatile business environment, you must be able to make the right call and adapt.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre.  She can be reached by email at or 

For daily updates, visit 

For more on the new language of leadership, visit