The Culture Case for Empathy

In an uncertain economy, and in VUCA times, empathy may seem like a “nice-to-have” leadership skill or culture asset. Instead, I propose that it is empathy that often serves as a catalyst for a Constructive culture.1

A Constructive culture, as defined by Human Synergistics (HS), is characterized by strong norms for four behavioral styles—Achievement, Self-Actualizing, Humanistic-Encouraging, and Affiliative (see profile).


The Circumplex provides a framework for observing how empathy is present or absent in the reported Ideal and Current culture, as measured by HS cultural assessments.2

Research conducted by The Liautaud Institute over the past 10 years discovered that employees have a biogenetic need to group, be empowered, and contribute in a meaningful way, and the best employee cultures allow this to happen. These cultures lead to the happiest employees, most innovative solutions, and greatest profits. Within these cultures, and to meet the three biogenetic needs, leaders and employees must be able to display empathy. The more an organization’s leaders shape a culture that reinforces and rewards behaviors demonstrating care for customers and employees, the greater the potential for uninterrupted growth, higher profits, improved products, and happier employees. Empathy may, in fact, be among the most underappreciated and overlooked strategic business tactic.3


“Companies prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has—the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people,” writes Stanford University Adjunct Professor Dev Patnaik in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy.

Empathy is a powerful social force. According to Dr. Brené Brown, we can create a genuine empathic connection only if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities—or, as The Liautaud Institute defines them, our vulnerabilities.4 Physiologically, each of us is hard-wired to care. Specific brain cells known as “mirror neurons”enable us to experience other people’s emotions. This capacity contributes to our levels of intuition, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and humanity. But what I’m finding with some of the clients we serve at The Institute is that when leaders try to cope with the daily challenges of an increasingly fast-paced world, it’s easy to lose the skills of empathy.

The more an organization can understand and empathize with the key motivators of their employees and customers, the more likely that organization will have sustainable success.
-Chip Conley

We need to reclaim our basic empathy abilities, which get lost in the shuffle of “crazy-busy” business routines. Organizations as well can learn to become empathic to forge connections with customers and employees. The SEMCO small group forum approach, developed by The Liautaud Institute reinforces empathy habits through a disciplined communication protocol and emotional social habits based on the premise “It is not about you, it is all about them”—the essence of empathy.4

However, we all work in the real world, and often we become so focused on “getting things done” that we forget to connect with our co-workers and customers on a basic human level. Organizations lose touch with their customers and employees, who are the reason they’re in business in the first place.

In my next blog post, I’ll discuss empathy in the information age.

What do you think? How does your organization display and reward empathy? I invite your thoughts and comments via social media.


1 Bennett, Nathan and Lemoine, G. James (2014). What VUCA Really Means for You, Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from
2 Cooke, R. A., (1997). How Culture Works model, Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics
3 Strategic planning. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from
4 The Liautaud Institute, (2016). SEMCOTM [PDF file] Retrieved from