Don’t Rely On Empathy

Last week, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed piece called The Limits of Empathy. He argues that empathy doesn’t really affect how people act. It’s an interesting article. Here’s an excerpt:

“Empathy makes you more aware of other people’s suffering, but it’s not clear it actually motivates you to take moral action or prevents you from taking immoral action… Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes...”

My take: Let’s assume that Brooks’ observations are correct. They still do not discount the importance of empathy with customers and within an organization. Even if empathy is not a significant motivator for a person’s actions, it still has an impact on the people who experience someone else’s empathy.

A strong implication of his thesis, which I totally endorse, is that companies can’t rely on empathy from employees to drive their actions. I often say that heroes don’t scale; you can’t rely on employees to do things just out of the goodness of their hearts.

One of my 6 Laws Of Customer Experience is that employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated. If company’s don’t create an environment that is conducive to providing good customer experience, then even the most empathetic employees will stop delivering great customer experience, or they will just leave the company. People tend to conform to their surroundings.

The bottom line: Empathy alone is not sufficient

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

4 Responses to Don’t Rely On Empathy

  1. Joe Talent says:

    AGREE that one shouldn’t rely on empathy alone, however empathy at key touchpoints is essential to customer engagement IMHO. Every customer experience has 2 components – Function and Feeling. Neglect one or the other and the customer will be left underwhelmed.

    Empathy – the human touch – is the connection between 2 persons’ emotions, and is what makes any customer experience rich and sincere. Empathy can still overcome the disengagement that failed functions entail, but not for ever and a day.

    Too many companies DO it must be said depend and expect ‘heroic customer service’ from their front line staff, when that can only achieve so much. So companies do need to think more strategically about combining the Function & Feeling.

  2. Anne Wood says:

    Bruce, I agree that empathy can’t just be generated because agents are told to have it. As you say if the agents are measured on business metrics (often designed to reduce cost and get rid of the customer as quickly as possible) then empathy is in short supply. I wrote a blog post on this last week which says pretty much the same thing as you. Until businesses change their metrics to focus on what the customer wants (listen to sentiment, change your business to give me what I actually want and not what you think I want) then nothing will change.

  3. Bruce Temkin says:

    Joe and Anne: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I talk about three components to any experience: Functional, Accessible, and Emotional. Empathy can really help a lot in the emotional piece for person-to-person interactions. Empathy is also one of the elements in my CARES model for service recovery (communication, accountability, responsiveness, empathy, solution)

  4. I believe that empathy is hugely important otherwise people feel as though their feelings aren’t important and don’t matter to us. Why wouldn’t we want to let them know that we are feeling for them and that we want them to know we care. Isn’t that what relationships are about?

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