Empathy in organizations: Q&A with the Barsema Professor of Social Entrepreneurship

“Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Martin Luther King, Jr. 

 Christine Mooney, the Barsema Professor of Social Entrepreneurship, earned her Ph.D. from Indiana University (2005). Her diverse research interests include executive succession, innovation, social enterprise and impact investing. Mooney’s research has been published in the Journal of ManagementAcademy of Management Learning and Education and Organization Dynamics. She teaches in the entrepreneurship program in the Department of Management. Her courses have included social venture consulting, social enterprise development and creativity and innovation. She also develops and delivers workshops in creativity and innovation, as well as business model development. 

NIU Business sat down with Christine for a conversation about empathy and how it impacts business.  (In the photo above, Christine is pictured on the right with two of her students on the left.)

 Q. Perhaps we should begin with a definition and a bit of background…what is empathy? 

 CM: Empathy has two aspects. One is related to cognition or perspective-taking, which referto the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. The other aspect is emotional or affective and involves the ability to feel what another person feels. The study of empathy originates in psychology. A great deal of work has been done in the field of child psychology, specifically. In terms of empathy in the business world, we’re seeing more of it in the social impact spaces and in the field of entrepreneurship. Beyond that, it’s considered an emerging yet important concept in terms of being formally utilized within business organizations. 

 Q. As the Barsema Professor of Social Entrepreneurship, you’ve been involved in the social impact space for a decade or more. You’re one of the key players who developed the college’s social entrepreneurship focus into a major area of study.  How do you explore and teach empathy in your classes? 

 CM:  One of the ways is by utilizing design thinking methodology, which begins with empathyI start by using the book Dare to Lead as the text to guide the empathy dialogues. It’s written by Brene Brown – she’s the Huffington Foundation Research Professor at the University of Houston. She studies leadership, courage, vulnerability and empathy. She’s a leading authority in the field. You may have seen her TED Talk video “The Power of Vulnerability.” It’s one of the top five TED Talk segments around the world. 

 Q. I did, yes, along with many millions. It has an extraordinary number of views.  She gives a great and informative talk. 

 CM: She does. And you probably recall that she starts by saying “connection is why we’re here”…that connection is what gives purpose and meaning to life.  It’s an important truth, and one of the ways connection occurs is through empathy. Of course, good entrepreneurs understand this. They have to be empathetic because they’re constantly trying to get into the mind of the customer and learn what they value, what their needs are, what problems they need solved.  

 Q. That makes sense. I hadn’t thought about empathy in that way before.  

 CM: This empathetic-type approach is emphasized even more with lean methodology, which includes a co-creation process between the entrepreneur and prospective customers. Together and through several iterations they explore and refine the value proposition of a business idea or product. Doing so requires entrepreneurs to move their own egos and beliefs to the side in order to truly listen and understand the views and needs of those in the marketplace. In my social entrepreneurship course, I use the book The Lean Impact, which is lean methodology modified for the social space. 

 Q. How does this play itself out in your class? 

 CM: My course is a general education class, so my students are typically sophomore through senior level and from a variety of colleges across the university. While my students don’t launch a business, they do go through the steps of lean methodology — from empathizing with the beneficiaries, identifying the right problem, ideation of potential solutions, to business model development.   

 Q. With all that information, ireflection an important consideration? It seems like it should be – life moves so fast…how do we go about processing everything? 

 CM: It is. Empathy and reflection go hand in hand.  We explore this in my class. Wlook at four interconnected modules: the practice of experimentation, the practice of play, the practice of creation, and the practice of empathy.  Reflection is at the center of the modules and is required for each areaI love that the modules are described as “the practice of,” by the way. This indicates very clearly that these areas need to be addressed continually. It’s a great deal like building muscle memory. A body builder never stops training. The work is never finished. 

 Q. What are some of the practice activities your students take on? 

 CM: include a week of Empathy Workshops in my classesThe activities focus on developing both personal and professional empathy. They’re designed to help students learn how to dive deep into questions. They learn how to listen actively. They learn how to suspend their assumptions, get curious, and ask more questions. It requires that they be nimble and more open with their thinking and emotional intelligence. Afterwards, they use what they learn from this in the following weeks by structuring and conducting problem interviews with prospective stakeholders or those who are somehow involved in the social problems the students are researching. Starting with empathy changes and improves relationships. It helps support healthy working relationships and brings key stakeholders into the design and development process early on, which is more likely to lead to product success – – or a product that your customers are going to find valuable.  This is the co-creation approach and is also beneficial as it helps stakeholders, including beneficiaries and customers, feel a sense of ownership fothe product. 

 Q. Is there a downside to not being empathetic in business? 

 CM:  Absolutely. Entrepreneurs will often think they know what the problem is to be solved, but it isn’t until they talk with their customers, or beneficiaries,  and truly listen, that they learn whether or not their assumptions were correct. The reality is that often they’re not. But when they’re empathetic, they uncover much more details about the problem or they discover an entirely new problem that the customer needs solved.  

Q: Is it fair to view the concept of empathy as a new business fundamental, a new skill for the tech age?

 CM: I think so. Academic research points to it. The skills of utmost importance for the age of tech that the research points to are: critical thinking skills, creativity skills, communications skills, and collaboration skills. Empathy is at the core of all these skills. 

 Q. How might empathy look in a for-profit or even a mid-sized or global firm?

 CM: In for-profit and non-profit workplaces, alike, it could translate into giving someone the benefit of the doubt if performance goals aren’t met. It requires being vulnerable as a leader and as a direct report. It means being brave and having difficult conversations about what the human issues are that might have played into the performance gap, while also holding individuals accountable and setting appropriate boundaries. Instead of having those conversations, leaders often will just give the person room. They might also overload them with projects and instead of checking in with them to see how it’s going or what, if anyissues need to be resolved so the work can get done, they might leave them on their own, believing that distance or silence helps when it might not. 

 Q. Empathy seems associated with high emotional intelligence. Is it associated mainly with leadership? Put another way, what box does empathy belong in on an org chart? 

 CM:  Empathy is actually a component of emotional intelligence. It is also suggested to be a key trait of good leadership. That said, empathy belongs in all the boxes of an org chart. And outside of all of them as well. There are empathetic leaders and there are empathetic followers. Everyone has the capacity for empathy. We also all start at different places with it. But no matter where we are with it, it needs to be a foundational piece throughout an organization and in life. 

 by M. De Jean, Director of Marketing, NIU Business


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