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  • Writer's pictureSally A Illingworth

What Most CEO's Forget

An organization that lacks empathy is bound to fail.

Traditionally, the likes of empathy as a key business focus would’ve likely been classified as one of the ‘fluffy’ pieces and something that is to be dealt with in isolation to a human resources department or the equivalent. Better yet, maybe it was just a company value printed on flyers in an attempt to be politically correct. Either way, both these approaches deplete the entire essence of empathy and massively discredit the power of empathy.

Empathy enables us to connect with one another as humans. Subsequent to our ability to connect and understand one another, it is only then that we can truly start to solve problems and serve others. In this sense, empathy is truly the gateway to building great businesses that are sustainable.

In commonplace corporate cultures, empathy takes a back seat. Why? I don’t believe anyone really knows why but there are certainly some indisputable drivers including, but not limited to, things like ego, comfort, and incompetence. Before we dive deeper into some of the key drivers that commonly eradicate empathy from organizational culture, and consequently the entire human capital workforce within the respective context, let’s understand empathy.

Psychologists note that there are two different types of empathy.

1. Shallow empathy which relates to the generalized notion of “put yourself in their shoes” from a preliminary perspective standpoint.

2. Deep empathy which relates to mentally immersing yourself in the experience of another to consider the entire sensory experience for that subject/person.

There is clearly a profound difference between shallow and deep empathy. It’d be safe to say that most people are generally empathetic in a shallow sense and seldom do they deeply explore the experience of another – but do we blame them? Empathy serves as an incredible gateway for problem-solving and business building but how many people, whether they’re an entry-level employee or C-suite executive, do you believe actually want to deeply immerse themselves in the sensory experience of a problem or a paint point? Probably not many!

The inherent wiring of our brains doesn’t make it very easy for us considering they’re wired to influence our behavior to opt for the path of least resistance and survive, so unless people are pushing themselves beyond their default behavior they won’t be developing a deep empathy for the people they need to serve in a professional capacity (and in a lot of cases they’re probably not willingly doing it personally either, hence why so many relationships are short-lived!).

we would best serve ourselves and

all other stakeholders by appreciating the interdependence of growth and empathy

Let’s switch to business basics for a second and remind ourselves of the core to build a great and successful business. For the most part, we’ve got to develop a solution that is in the form of a product or service, or maybe a combination of the both, that addresses a problem and/or paint point for a segment of a consumer market. So, if the core of business is to improve the lives of others by solving a problem and/or paint point for them would you not agree that empathy is probably the single most important stepping stone to even begin to conceptualize an appropriate and market relevant product/service solution?

Simply put, if we can not deeply immerse ourselves in the entire sensory experience of the target consumer we reasonably can not deem ourselves fit to develop, let alone deploy, a solution for them.

“But Sally, if an organization is generating revenue they obviously have deep empathy for their target consumer”.

Correct, they likely do and kudos to them. For the purpose of this conversation, we’re focusing on the sustainability of organizations which is directly proportionate to their ability to remain deeply empathetic to their target consumer throughout the entire lifecycle of the business. Remember that things change, particularly consumer buying behavior (changing consumer behavior is the biggest threat to ALL businesses!). The weather changes, our health changes, our family circumstances change – change is a constant. It is therefore crucial that as an organization our effort to empathize with our target consumer evolves and remains constant to ensure we are progressively and proactively aligned with how their needs, wants and expectations may change in relation to the problem/paint point we are solving for them.

So why is it commonplace for organizations to misplace empathy? There are immeasurable variables in which respect we can contextually generalize some of the common drivers.


Let’s start with ego. Ego is largely aligned to our sense of self-worth which means that the influence of ego on our behavior tends to be in the way of self-preservation. Ego in this sense is probably not well acquainted with empathy in the sense that ego is an internal focus and empathy is an external focus – you can’t blink and stare at the same time. Many people have an ego so strong that mitigates their ability to truly empathize with others, particularly within the context of their profession and this, ladies and gentlemen, is a massive fucking problem. The political nature of organizations by structure has a stunning ability to incidentally encourage egotistical extremes which serves no value to any stakeholder.


Comfort for individuals relates to when they are subject to no friction with what they are doing. Being in a state of comfort does not suitably align with the pursuit of deeply empathizing with someone in which respect, remembering how our brains are inherently wired to embrace comfort, it would be totally incorrect for someone to claim they can adequately empathize with another person comfortably. Again, this is a massive problem on the basis that people within organizations, particularly long-established organizations, are typically dangerously comfortable. So reverting to the goal of wanting to build great businesses that are sustainable, organizations find themselves in a massive pickle when consumer behavior (relative to wants, needs, and expectations) starts to change because their workforce (endorsed by organizational culture) are comfortable with the current status quo and therefore are not willing and/or adequately able to let go of comfort to deeply empathize with the changing landscape.


As a foreword, I firmly believe everyone has the opportunity to create their potential and that individual potential is not predetermined as some societal conditioning may suggest. BUT this doesn’t mean that people can’t be promoted beyond their level of competence. If we’re frank about it, this happens too often. And when this happens, often the individuals within the organizations aren’t equipped with the capability to empathize with their target consumer to the extent and depth they need to in order to satisfy the requirements of their remit within the scope of serving the respective target consumer. This too, is a MASSIVE problem.

“What is your point Sally?”.

As individuals contributing within the context of an organization of any size, we would best serve ourselves and all other stakeholders by appreciating the interdependence of growth and empathy. Without appreciating and embracing this indisputably fundamental rule of business, I feel we too easily deny ourselves of becoming great at what we do whether in capacity as an employee or employer.

Don't worry about printing empathy on the flyers or distributing a press release about how empathetic you are just yet! Below are some practical questions to do an empathy check whenever you need it. The impact of well-implemented empathy will speak for itself - great news, you can save on printing materials.

empathy is truly the gateway to building

great businesses that are sustainable

Things to consider:

1.     Is ego clouding judgement?

2.     Are we too comfortable?

3.     Are our resources optimally allocated?

Share your thoughts on the relationship between business growth and empathy in the comments below!


Sally A Illingworth


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