Empathy in the Data Age

empathydefI’ve been thinking about my last blog post, Business Case for Empathy that discussed how workplaces need to demonstrate more empathy.  In the work I do coaching leaders and consulting with organizations, I often teach or coach on how to develop an emotionally smart and socially respectful and civil culture; especially in this “Need it Now Virtual Information Age”

Most organizations, and their leaders, spend more work time on data, than face-to-face employee or customer contact. It’s important to remember that we are intrinsically social animals, with an innate ability to sense what others are thinking and feeling.  We just need to design our leadership style and environment to engage in more people to people contact.

Late last century, four Italian neuroscientists discovered how the social brain works, and this discovery provided understanding and tools to increase and demonstrate empathy.  Giacomo Rizzolatti and his

colleagues at the University of Parma in Italy wanted to understand how our brains work when we take action.  The researchers studied the brains of monkeys.  One day as a neuroscientist picked up a peanut in the lab, a monkey watched him closely.  This monkey’s premotor neurons fired just as they had earlier when the monkey had picked up the peanut himself. This was new and the scientists could hardly believe what they had witnessed.  They called these special neurons as mirror neurons.


It’s mirror neurons that let us see the world through the eyes of other people and enables you to understand the meaning of other people’s actions. Mirrored neurons are the hard wiring behind empathy.   Empathy lets leaders “get a feel” of what’s going on with other people, what they feel and what they think. When leaders establish an empathic connection, it gives them that “sixth sense” mirrored neuron learning on what matters most to people, what motivates them and what they value. .


When leaders stay in face to face contact with colleagues, peers and customers, they have a better sense of what’s going on in the world.  And often, you’ll have an “edge” on competitors at spotting new opportunities and forging deeper relationships.

Large institutions often choose to rely on data, employee satisfaction surveys or market research for information on customer or staff experiences. They choose to lessen the amount of time in face-to-face interactions, critical to creating a mirrored neuron moment to reinforce, and often, strengthen the relationship. These leaders become emotionally distant from their customers’ and employee’s day-to-day needs, wants and dreams. In the words of Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory.

Harley-Davidson is one notable exception, its office a shrine to the motorcycle culture the company helped create. Offices display photos, memorabilia and banners from rallies. Customers and employees ride together. Engineers, accountants and administrative staff acquire an intuitive understanding of the customers who buy their products.

Harley-Davidson’s leaders mandate that company executives spend measurable time on the streets with motorcycle riders. While many employees don’t ride, the company nonetheless instills its lifestyle and values. Empathy is a key element of this corporate strategy.

In many workplaces, however, this is not the case. Instead of opportunities to mingle with customers, employees, marketing and human resource departments rely on data to identify the demographical needs of their customers or staff. . They spend money and time monitoring web browsing history and the ads people select or choose to click, and based on that data, they make product and staff decisions.

How about in your place of work? In what ways are there missed opportunities to make an emotional connection with your team or customer? I’d love to hear from you.

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