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The connection between empathy and innovation

Kelly Manthey
Women talking over coffee

Empathy has come to the forefront of valued leadership traits. Over the last few years of vast uncertainty, this attribute has played a key role in supporting employees. It will continue to gain importance as employees continue to seek work environments that support their needs.

Host Kelly Manthey, Group Chief Executive of Kin + Carta Americas, was recently joined by guest speaker Heather Deggans, Vice President, Go-to-Market Strategy, Global Partner Solutions at Microsoft, for a women CIO roundtable that included tech leads from a range of businesses.

The focus of the discussion was on what it means to lead with empathy and how this leadership trait ultimately promotes a culture of innovation in a tech enterprise.

The business value of empathy

Roundtable participants acknowledged that challenges attach to embedding empathy into the company culture. Tech and engineering organizations can be particularly resistant. For many, the vulnerability required to be empathetic runs counter to their beliefs about how to lead and succeed. “Empathy” can be confused with “sympathy” and therefore discounted as a valuable attribute for leaders.

Empath, the ability to ability to understand the viewpoint of another person, to be able to see something from their eyes, in fact, has great business value. Empathy was referred to as a bridge in the roundtable discussion. It is a connector that can have positive impacts across the enterprise, including employee retention, sales, product design, and that much-sought-after element for success, innovation.

The bridge between “diversity” to “inclusion”

In terms of employee retention, empathy is a bridge that connects “diversity” to “inclusion.” Heather observed that having a diverse workforce does not automatically mean it’s an inclusive one. Too often, one participant noted, an organization checks the diversity box but misses the boat on inclusion.

Heather related an experience at Microsoft, where HR focused on the significant loss of diverse employees before their second year at the company. A poll indicated that these employees recognized that their diverse viewpoints were not really of interest to management. Their observations and ideas were not included.

This was one factor that led Microsoft to train top leadership in the skills needed for empathetic leadership. The program (though resisted by some at first) was so successful that over time it was rolled out across all 10,000 US employees.

Increasing diversity is not only key to creating a better, safer, and fairer environment for all within your organization but it is fundamental for the creation of more inclusive products. Eliminating biases in AI, ensuring people with differing abilities have equal access to digital services, and keeping underrepresented users at the heart of product development is only possible when internal diversity is properly addressed.

Not just “ticking the boxes”

An inclusive solution has research and empathy at its heart, creating products and services with access for all and value for your business.

The harsh truth we face in a digital-first world, though, is that technology alienates and excludes millions of people. Creating an inaccessible product means ignoring 20% of your potential audience. If we don’t recognize this and act now, it has the potential to exclude many more.

Digital transformation forms a framework for businesses to create a more equal world for their customers and employees. From going cloud-native for environmental efficiencies to designing with empathy for accessible digital experiences, organizations can start reducing inequalities by taking the following into consideration:

  1. Understanding underlying bias in technology
  2. Bridging the digital divide
  3. Putting people first
  4. Becoming resilient with a sustainability strategy
  5. The five pillars of sustainable digital transformation
  6. Build a world that is equal for everyone


Not only does empathetic leadership bridge the gap between “diversity” to “inclusion” within a company's four walls but also the products and services your organization creates.

Improving the customer experience

In sales and product design, empathy contributes to a meaningful customer-focused approach. Heather offered an excellent example of user-experience design. The idea, she observed, was to walk a mile in the end user’s shoes so that the experience can be optimally designed.

How many times, she asked, have we thought we know what the user wants? There was a time when the experience was developed based on those opinions. With the advent of customer research, things changed.

Not only can experience be designed with a proper customer focus, but the research can unearth a hidden gem or an unperceived obstacle that would have cost a lot of money. The result is an optimally-designed experience. The research in this case offers the opportunity to empathize with the user.

Unleashing innovation

So what is the connection between empathy and innovation? Studies have shown that empathy has been a continuously underestimated asset for innovation. Empathic leadership creates a more innovative, engaged, and inclusive company culture.

When team members are confident that the space is safe for their ideas, no matter how half-baked they might be, they are more likely to speak up. In an environment where individual differences are understood and varying viewpoints and opinions are not discounted or rejected, true innovation can take place.

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Best practices to lead with empathy:

Include the two-word check-in for meetings

This can be a good place to start for including empathy in the culture. Simply go from attendee to attendee and ask them to give two words for where they are at the moment.

Responses could be “tired and heavy”, “energized and nervous”, or a wide range of other combinations. The purpose of this is to understand each person’s state of mind before proceeding, which can help others contextualize their contributions to the conversation.

Encourage moving from “know it all” to “learn it all"

Approaching a meeting or a sales call packed with knowing used to be a power position. In those days, we were in “transmit mode,” offering our know-how and the solutions that we knew were needed in a given situation. Like the user experience design noted above, shifting to empathy takes a “learn it all” approach. Asking questions and practicing active listening opens us to others’ viewpoints and needs.

Establish a common language to indicate a safe space/conversation

Heather and Kelly both talked about having ways that people could let their guards down in conversations. At Microsoft, having a “rumble” means a discussion in which participants are safe to express themselves without backlash. Kin + Carta uses the word “clear.” “I want to clear something with you” means that the speaker is ready to say something that might sound confrontational, but that the discussion is safe. Using this kind of language is a signal for open and receptive expression that can increase empathy.

Differentiate between empathy and sympathy

Some people think of sympathy when they hear empathy. Sympathy generally means feeling the same as someone else. Empathy means understanding someone’s viewpoint or feelings but not necessarily sharing them. We don’t have to agree to be empathetic.

Think of empathy as a muscle that takes practice to develop

Like other skills, empathy is an attribute that can be learned. Think about how team members can make progress toward mastery. What feedback would be effective? Are there other things like the two-word check-in that can be incorporated into individual or group interactions that can help increase insight and understanding? Stay patient and keep your team moving in the right direction.

Heather reminded participants several times during the discussion that, like many other cultural changes, buy-in for developing empathy as a leadership skill won’t be 100%. In Microsoft, Heather said, 78% of the workforce said that the empathy training had value, which is a great number. Any company with a 78% “thumbs up” on empathy is in a great position for innovation breakthroughs and competitive advantage.

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