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Empathy: Activating the Soul of the Company

Recently several of our members sat in on a conversation between 2 people who are passionate about human issues in the workplace. It became a conversation starter for a bigger discussion around the recent shift as large organizations look to incorporate more empathetic approaches. This conversation took place last week between the CEO of Neuroscience Leadership Institute, Dr. David Rock, and David Gelles author of The Man Who Broke Capitalism.

The central question posed: “How can a company make profits but also have a soul?’  It’s similar to the challenge many of our learners face on an individual level: “How can we be more empathetic toward our colleagues and still get the job done?”

It’s a valid question and one we discuss regularly in our Empathy@Work program in which we accept the challenging conversation along with Dr. Rock who shares some of the neuroscience behind potential “soul-killing” blind spots for people and organizations:

Goals win out over people.

The prefrontal cortex of our brain is where the unique attributes of human-being reside. These attributes include insight, morality, intuition, emotional balance, attuned communication, and empathy, Yet, this part of the brain switches off when we think of goals and plans.  Plans, goals, and other conceptual thinking are located in another area of the brain entirely. People do need to stay focused on goals and outcomes, but it raises a challenge if goals are the only thing in mind when interacting with team members and stakeholders.  In our very goal-oriented culture, this can lead to less empathetic interactions.

Activating Empathy

Not every interaction needs to be goal-oriented. Connecting with team members on a personal basis can go a long way toward establishing the foundation for empathy. This might mean spending a few minutes before a meeting catching up on personal items, checking in on how people are doing, meeting outside of work when possible, or even creating some unstructured time with team members during the week.

Empathy is confused with Sympathy.

There has been much talk recently on empathy. Yet, what we are learning is that often, what is being taught as empathy may NOT be empathy at all.  Sympathizing, comforting, commiserating, agreeing, and “fixing” are frequently confused with true empathy and can create conflicting results. True empathy starts with tuning in to what is going on emotionally with another person. The ability to sense what other people are feeling is an important factor in allowing us to connect or communicate effectively with empathy.

Activating Empathy – Try this Empathy Quiz – See if you can identify the non-empathetic responses

“I am having a hard time thinking clearly these days-  it’s like my mind can’t make a decision!”

A)  “Well, you are doing everything you can, it’s not your fault.”
B)  “Hey – overwhelm is just the nature of the business we’re in.”
C)  “That sounds overwhelming, especially considering the role you’re in and changes you’ve been dealing with lately.”
D)  “There are actually 3 big decisions you need to make this week.”
E)  “You poor thing.”
F)  “What exactly have you done to clear your head?”
G)  “Oh, last week I was in decision meetings back-to-back.”

Understanding ≠ Empathy

Although we may sense what another is feeling, we may not always understand their emotional state from an intellectual perspective– and we don’t have to in order to be empathetic. Feelings are incredibly complex and rarely logical. In our effort to understand intellectually, we can more easily lose the thin thread of true empathy. Understanding requires us to analyze, conceptualize, investigate, conjecture, etc…Once again, this activates a different part of the brain than the area responsible for empathy.

Activating Empathy

Acknowledge feelings are a part of the human experience at work; feelings are just feelings. They don’t have to be explained or justified. Sometimes just acknowledging what another is feeling is a profound step in the right direction toward empathy.

At InteraWorks we subscribe to a Holographic Organizational model, wherein what is true for the individual member is reflected throughout the organization. What we as individuals bring to the organization – in the way of our values, experience, wisdom, perceptions, assumption, beliefs, and attitudes – interacts with and affects the direction and future capacity of the organization.

Activating the soul of any company begins with working with the members of the organization and enabling them to be their very best selves.  It seems like a very good place to start!


Co-Authors – Anne McGhee-Stinson, Director of Practice & Michelle Santaferraro, Facilitator


About InteraWorks

InteraWorks is a global learning company on a mission to elevate the human experience at work. Specializing in professional development and performance enablement, we offer top-rated learning programs based on four defined conditions that must exist for individuals, teams including Effective Edge, Best Year Yet, and the Essentials series. Our integrated learning framework and online tools generate immediate and sustainable breakthroughs in performance. Through decades of working at all levels in enterprise companies across many industries, we’ve built a reputation for helping people and organizations harness their focus, mindset, talent and energy to produce results that matter most. 


We’ve defined four conditions that must exist for an individual, team or organization to be effective within the arena of performance and development; Accountability, Focus, Alignment, and Integrity. We’ll continue to explore these and more in our blog and look forward to your engagement and interaction with us. Stay tuned as we engage the edges.