The Important Distinction Between Individual and Organizational Empathy

As we continue to share the new Corporate Empathy Test—now live on my site—each week we will be publishing blog content that touches on the theoretical background of this new test and its outcomes. Below is the third and final post to be published on my site. 

In the workplace, individual empathy is about showing respect for employees and co-workers. It is about how managers actively listen, show that they care about their staff, and relate to their experiences. Nonetheless, individual empathy goes both ways as employees also need to demonstrate the ability to step into someone else’s shoes, be aware of their colleague’s feelings, and properly understand their needs.

The core of leadership is ultimately about others, and empathy is the foundation. Recent research has demonstrated that leaders’ influence on group members’ emotions can substantially affect their job attitudes and performance. [1] For instance, it has been shown that leaders strongly influence their subordinates’ feelings of frustration and feelings of optimism, which in turn influence objective sales performance. [2] Similar research has shown that leaders have a strong impact on team climate, which in turn influences team performance. [3] Empathy is also important in governing customer-employee interactions. Studies have shown that empathy strengthens the positive effect on customer satisfaction, leading to more symbiotic interactions that mitigate the negative effects of customer dissatisfaction on customer loyalty. [4]

Although employees desire a spirit of empathy inside their respective work environment, ideally from the top down, they also appreciate and expect corporate causes and responsible initiatives. This is expected not only by team members, but by a number of relevant stakeholders. This group ranges from strategic partners to clients and suppliers, and more importantly local communities. Socially responsible organizations tend to be more aware of their effects on the society and therefore try to define beneficial projects both for the organization and the society. [5] This awareness creates a meaningful connection, a deeper understanding of the impression their behavior leaves on others, which tends to ensure the organization is adaptable to the changing needs of its crucial stakeholders. 

What is it that makes an organization more empathetic than others? A report made public by the World Economic Forum [6] in 2016 outlined the most common practices of organizations that are perceived to be highly empathetic. 

To begin, an emphasis is placed on culture. One where constructive behaviors are immediately recognized and rewarded across all levels. People are actively engaged in a psychologically safe environment that nurtures constructive behaviors and drives individual and team-level performance. 

Secondly, according to the report, organizations scoring high on the empathy index value transparency and dialogue as the first steps in dealing with internal and external challenges. On top of that, ethics is prioritized as they constantly consider how to maintain the highest standards of moral principles in all manner of operations and decision making. 

Furthermore, it has been pointed out that organizations high on the empathy index make the most of their social media channels, actively engaging in a dialogue directly with their customers and employees. Authenticity is the key here, as organizations are acutely aware of the opportunity to help people to see the company as part of someone’s journey rather than a detached entity focused on making profits. 

Lastly, the report suggests that empathetic organizations do not ignore customer  complaints, but in fact they recognize that negative feedback. They see it as an emotional response which provides an opportunity for insight into the customer’s experience.

An empathetic organization is therefore a customer-centered-emotionally-invested entity, and has many advantages over an “emotionally detached” company. As Forrester [7] suggested in a report that outlines key approaches to cultivate a more empathetic mindset, customer-centered companies report having more happier employees, more loyal customers, and increased likelihood to exceed revenue growth expectations.

The common element between individual and organizational empathy is the ability to understand other people’s emotional states, interests, and perspectives on a situation. In terms of wider communities, empathy may well become a significant attribute of branding as a goal for building a positive and favorable perception among clients, customers, and the local communities. It becomes an extension of the organization’s character, personality, and corporate identity.

If individual empathy can be visible through the cognitive, affective and behavioral elements described above, organizational empathy can be translated into a significant metric, but in conjunction with the relationship the companies build with their stakeholders. This includes not only  employees, but also shareholders, suppliers, customers, authorities, and communities, in a greater context of corporate social responsibility initiatives. Examples that are likely to be perceived as signs of an organization’s level of empathy towards its stakeholders are care for implementing responsible labor practices (i.e., good working conditions, children employment), for the environment (i.e., recycling policies, CO and CO2 emissions, reducing environmental footprint), and the community (i.e., positive effect on society, sponsorships of worthy causes). [8] [9]

As organizations seek positions that are new, unique, and differentiated from the competition, it becomes necessary to study the measurable elements of organizational empathy in order to contribute with the core tools for improving effectiveness in the business industry.

Stay tuned for the next blog post as we continue our discussion and explore the science of corporate empathy and, of course, be sure to take the test, here, to determine the empathy score of your company or employer today so you can formulate an action plan to improve it.


  • [1] Kellett, J. B., Humphrey, R. H., & Sleeth, R. G. (2006). Empathy and the emergence of task and relations leaders. The Leadership Quarterly, 17(2), 146-162.
  • [2] McColl-Kennedy, Janet R., and Ronald D. Anderson. “Impact of leadership style and emotions on subordinate performance.”; The leadership quarterly 13, no. 5 (2002): 545-559.
  • [3] Pirola-Merlo, A., Härtel, C., Mann, L., & Hirst, G. (2002). How leaders influence the impact of affective events on team climate and performance in R&D teams. The leadership quarterly, 13(5), 561-581.
  • [4] Wieseke, J., Geigenmüller, A., & Kraus, F. (2012). On the role of empathy in customer-employee interactions. Journal of service research, 15(3), 316-331.
  • [5] Hanzaee, K. H., & Rahpeima, A. (2013). Corporate social responsibility (CSR): A scale development study in Iran. Research Journal of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology, 6(9), 1513-1522.
  • [6] World Economic Forum (2016). 8 ways to lead with empathy.
  • [7] Empathy: The Hallmark Of The Customer- Obsessed B2B Marketer
  • [8] Uzelac, N., & Alić, M. Corporate Empathy–is it measurable and teachable?.
  • [9] Martínez García de Leaniz, Patricia & Pérez, Andrea & Rodríguez-del-Bosque, Ignacio. (2013). Measuring Corporate Social Responsibility in tourism: Development and validation of an efficient scale in the hospitality industry. Journal of Travel & Tourism Marketing. 30. 365-385. 10.1080/10548408.2013.784154.

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