Empathy is being embraced as a priority by more and more businesses. Sources as diverse as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, and self-help guru Tony Robbins have all weighed in on the subject. Most recently, research titan Qualtrics declared 2023 the Year of Empathy. 

Almost all of these discussions focus on empathy as an interpersonal skill, a way to be respectful and inclusive when you communicate with others. But there’s also a second form of empathy, which we call business empathy. Rather than focusing on individual communication, it’s more about empathizing with groups of customers or markets, and using that empathy to make better business decisions.

Although personal empathy gets by far the most attention, both forms of it are important to the success of a business. Fortunately, business empathy is relatively easy to understand, once you get the right mindset. In this article, we’ll discuss both personal and business empathy, and we’ll give you some pointers on ways to create a culture that encourages business empathy.

The drive for personal empathy in business

It’s easy to find articles and presentations on the need for personal empathy in business. Here are a few prominent examples:

  • Tony Robbins says empathy is about building trust. “Every time you disregard someone’s opinion or treat them like they don’t matter, you are eroding trust. Leadership is built on trust and respect and you can increase both of these by taking the time to understand where people are coming from and accepting their differences.”
  • Harvard Business Review framed empathy as a way to decrease feelings of isolation, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic: “Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s problem in the hopes of understanding, of bridging a gap. It helps us feel in community, not abandoned to anomic isolation. It helps us feel seen and known for who we are.”
  • There’s also debate on whether empathy is a talent that’s innate to some people or a skill that you can learn. For example, the London School of Economics argues that empathy is entirely a skill, while Forbes says empathy is both a talent and a skill. The difference has huge implications to a company, because it determines whether empathy is something you try to train into your employees, or a talent you have to hire for regardless of any training you do.

The Qualtrics article digs into the subject systematically. It identifies three different flavors of empathy, four business practices that need to be built around them, and three separate initiatives for each of the business practices. For example, it discusses how to increase compassion, reduce bias, empower acts of kindness, and create a shared emotional vocabulary. The article is a great piece of analysis, and well worth reading. But it’s also 19 separate concepts you’re asked to absorb, and there are even more levels of detail within some of the practices. I worry that many companies in the middle of a recession may balk at the thought of driving that much change in a single year, and could turn away from empathy to focus on less complicated tasks.

That would be a tragedy. Because business empathy is, at its heart, very simple. And it’s very fundamental to improving our companies.  

Personal empathy versus business empathy

Personal empathy is focused on connecting individuals: helping people understand one-another so no one gets left out and everyone feels connected. It’s very important to society as a whole as well as to business. But it’s not the whole story.

Business empathy is a separate process. It focuses on connecting with markets and customers: understanding their needs and reactions, so you can serve them better. Although it uses some of the same skills and language as personal empathy, it’s much more focused on groups, and rather than creating a dialog, it’s about driving business decisions through real-time customer feedback. 

Business empathy is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking about the world, and it’s a better way to make decisions. There are just two concepts you need to understand to get started with business empathy: 

  1. You must have the humility to admit that your customers are so complicated and diverse that you can’t reliably predict how they will react in a given situation, and
  2. You must develop the patience to listen compassionately to what your customers tell you, in real time, before you make important decisions. A human insight solution can help you do this at scale.

That’s it: humbleness and patience. Once you’ve absorbed that mindset, all the business practices you need to do around business empathy fall into place much more easily. But without the mindset, making the changes in your business practices will be like pushing string uphill.

The situation we face today with business empathy is eerily similar to what the A/B testing community faced in the early 2000s when they first started calling for controlled experiments online. Just as we’re trying to convince people that they should do human insight tests before making a decision, they had to persuade companies that they needed to run A/B tests on their feature changes. 

The A/B testing community went through a long process of creating an “experimentation culture” inside their companies. You can read about that process in this report, which was written by more than 25 experimentation experts at leading tech companies. See section six of the report for the details.

Today, advocates of business empathy are going through a similar process of creating a human insight culture in their companies. The process is likely to take years, but the experience with experimentation teaches lessons about how to make it go faster and overcome the likely obstacles you’ll face. Here are some techniques to drive the change, adapted from our own experiences and the collected wisdom of the A/B testing community:

Create humility by sharing surprises. There’s a consistent pattern when we talk with people who have adopted human insight for their business decision-making. They’ll usually say something like, “I thought I really understood my customers, then I did a test and I discovered I was so wrong.” The humbling shock of finding that your intuition is unreliable turns people from skeptics into evangelists. Therefore, you need to create tests that revisit your company’s common assumptions about customers, and illustrate where they’re wrong. You may have to try a few tests to find the errors, but when you do, publicize the findings internally to spread the revelation.

Launch a Customer Connect program. Companies like Tesco invite employees to one-on-one video conversations with customers, designed to ground the employees in customer reality. It’s a fast way to spread customer understanding around the company. For more details, see our article here.

Fit human insight into your current processes. Microsoft and LinkedIn call this “safe rollout” because it makes early adopters of your approach feel safe. Rather than trying to create new business processes built around business empathy, you figure out how to fit it into your company’s current processes. This means specifying exactly when a human insight test should be run in the product or marketing development process, and what the test should look like. The more you make human insight just another step in the development routine, the more likely it will be adopted. We cover this subject more in our human insight implementation guide for UX research teams.

Provide high-touch support for selected teams. At LinkedIn, the experimentation team partnered deeply with a few business-critical teams one at a time, teaching them the right culture and practices before moving on to the next team. This helped create a broad-based experimentation culture over time. The downside is that it took a lot of effort and was difficult to scale across the whole company.

Start with a single activity. Because business empathy can help in many different situations, it’s tempting to try to deploy human insight broadly across the company all at once. This increases your risk of failure because you have to train a lot of people and change a lot of processes at the same time. It’s often more effective to start with a single business practice (for example, needs discovery) and nail the use of human insight in that area before moving on to something else. 

In spirit, this is similar to the high-touch approach described above, but instead of trying to transform a single team at a time, you’re transforming one process at a time across multiple teams. The advantage of focusing on processes is that you create wins across many groups at once, giving you a more distributed set of advocates across the company. But be aware that this cross-team implementation isn’t easy in all companies. The more autonomous the business units are in your company, the harder it will be to drive changes across all of them at once.

Be patient and keep pushing

The experimentation culture was a revolutionary change back in 2000, but today it seems obvious. In the future business empathy and human insight testing will seem equally obvious to most companies.

If you’re trying to drive a culture of human insight in your company, you should expect to go through a process similar to the one that created the experimentation culture in the early 2000s. It will take time and energy. You’ll struggle sometimes to make any progress at all. And there are going to be setbacks along the way. Don’t lose heart, keep pushing — and keep in mind that you don’t have to change everything all at once. If you can find a single win for human insight, you’ll have your foot in the door to drive greater change later.

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of UserTesting or its affiliates.