Empathy in business.

Creative Strategist & Partner

At 22, my father encouraged me to apply to business school. He felt a Master of Business Administration program would give me the skills to curate my ideas and build a successful company. So, I took the required entrance exam and began applications for several MBA Programs. However, my wife knew how much I loved to tell stories and inspired me to apply to film school. Before sending out a business school application, my acceptance to The Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema arrived in the mail. So, I tossed the business school applications into the trash and set a course for Montreal.

Despite not receiving an MBA, the last twenty-five years have allowed me to make films, work for a fortune 500 company, and build three successful start-ups. I often reflect on what lessons I might have missed by not attending business school or did I gain a different set from my experiences. Ironically, honing my storytelling craft taught me one of the most significant elements required to grow a successful business: empathy.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another. Maria Ross, author of The Empathy Edge, states, “Empathy is what we feel when we haven’t necessarily had the same experience but can actively imagine what the experience might have felt like, and perhaps (but not necessarily) even feel the emotions ourselves.” Empathy takes more effort than sympathy or compassion because you must intentionally put yourself in the other person’s situation to understand and feel what they are experiencing.

Well-crafted films draw empathy by creating a shared experience between the storyteller and their audience. When we hear a narrative, our brains activate the same active regions when we experience the events in real life. This phenomenon is known as “neural coupling,” and it helps us to connect emotionally with the storyline and the characters. A compelling film can make us see ourselves and others differently. The experience inspires us to understand different perspectives and feelings that lead us to connect more deeply with the people around us. 

Over the last seventeen years, I’ve used films to connect audiences and facilitate safe conversations about critical social issues like mental health. The movies make people feel less alone and more linked to others through the shared experience. When audience members express their personal stories during a post-film discussion, they connect with empathy, and the shared reactions foster a mutual understanding that strengthens the community. It is a powerful experience that businesses can harness if they prioritize time and space for storytelling.

In 2012, Google’s People Operations team created a research study called Project Aristotle to evaluate and identify the key factors that make teams successful. The multi-year study reviewed hundreds of Google’s teams and utilized various methods to assess the groups, such as surveys, interviews, and behavior analysis. After studying the data, the researchers determined that one of the vital factors consistently associated with high-performing teams was that members feel safe sharing their ideas and feelings. The study illustrated that groups engaged in emotional conversations that many consider uncomfortable in the workplace grew stronger. The New York Times Magazine profiled the study and cited a moment when a team leader shared with his peers that he had cancer. The team had worked with the person for ten months without knowing his diagnosis. After he expressed his story, another team member shared his struggle with health issues, and then another stood up to tell the story of a breakup. Like in my post-film discussions, each person who shared a personal story motivated another to do the same, ultimately fostering empathy that brought the team closer.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella says, “Without empathy, it is not possible to get the best from your team, so for that reason, it is the key to everything.” Many business schools are beginning to recognize the importance of empathy in business and are incorporating classes and programs focusing on developing empathy skills in their students. The Stanford Graduate School of Business now offers an “Interpersonal Dynamics” course on developing empathy and interpersonal skills. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University provides an “Empathy and Social Change” class focusing on using empathy to drive positive social change. However, you do not have to attend business school to learn how to cultivate empathy within your business. You just have to learn to create time and space for storytelling.

I co-founded Tansley with David Gascon and Mathieu Guérin to help companies communicate their story to build stronger customer connections. A brand story has the same potent impact that a personal narrative has on another human as long as it is genuine, intentional, and expresses vulnerability. Each of these elements helps further connections with other humans. For example, when a story is true, it builds trust. When an account is intentional, it fosters respect. And when a story expresses vulnerability, it cultivates empathy.

Businesses prioritizing storytelling develop empathy with everyone they connect with, from employees to customers. Empathy is not just a soft skill or a nice-to-have; it is a core competency that can make or break a business. Brands that share their story and make time for employees to tell theirs cultivate empathy that helps companies build a supportive environment, understand their customers’ needs, and create a positive brand image. Businesses that fail to empathize with their customers and employees will likely experience lower engagement, less loyalty and productivity, higher turnover, and a negative brand image. When a company makes empathy a core value and integrates it into its business strategy, operations, and culture, it sets a precedent that enables the relationship with its employees and customers to grow.

I still think of attending business school to earn an MBA. However, I’ve learned some of the most valuable business skills have come from paying close attention to what we value as beings. Behind every customer profile, job position, and organization are humans that want to feel listened to, understood, and appreciated. The best way to achieve this feeling is to develop a culture that prioritizes empathy.

Please contact us to find out how Tansley can help foster more empathy within your business.