Empathy at work…

Last week we heard Simon Sinek speak about empathy in the workplace, and how empathetic leadership is essential for workers to thrive.

Empathy is also related to business in another way—through the output of business, the products and services we buy. The satisfaction we derive from these products and services is greater when the designers put themselves in our shoes before production begins.

That is a common definition of empathy—walking in someone else’s shoes, seeing through their eyes—more formally referred to as perspective-taking.

Industrial Design

Industrial design is an example of empathy at work. This is how it’s described by the  Industrial Designers Society of America…

Industrial Design (ID) is the professional practice of designing products, devices, objects, and services used by millions of people around the world every day. Every object that you interact with on a daily basis in your home, office, school, or public setting is the result of a design process. During this process, myriad decisions are made by an industrial designer (and their team) that are aimed at improving your life through well-executed design.  

This video of the OXO Good Grips story illustrates conscious design thinking at work…

Design thinking…

Stanford University Design School, known as the d.school, is at the forefront of design thinking. Here’s how they describe the role of design thinking:

We aim to actively confront and challenge the mindset that design can only be used by a privileged few.

We believe design can help create the world we wish for. Design can activate us as creators and change the way we see ourselves and others. Design is filled with optimism, hope, and the joy that comes from making things change by making things real.

People in business, higher education, the public sector and K12 education are using design to create change.

In a 2016 interview, the Director of Professional Development at the K12 Lab at the d.school spoke about design thinking, empathy, and the connections between the two.

There are three meaningful ways to develop empathy for others. One way is through interviewing, where you have conversations with your end users. It’s an overlooked and undervalued way to develop empathy, but it is extremely effective.

Another way to develop empathy is through observation; we find that what people say, and what people do, don’t always line up. Through observation, designers can pick up on these discrepancies.

A third way to develop empathy is by immersing yourself in other people’s experiences. For example, if you are redesigning the cafeteria for your school, you would stand in line, get your tray, etc. so you could see for yourself what your users are experiencing. This is a meaningful way to develop empathy!

Design wasn’t always empathetic…

The practices of interviewing prospective users, observing them, and immersing yourself in other people’s experiences seem like obvious ways to approach product design. But…would you believe that as recently as 1978, it wasn’t even part of the equation!

Then along came Patricia Moore, a 26-year-old design school graduate hired by a large and prestigious firm. She wanted to design products so they could be used by anyone—such as refrigerators that could be opened by someone with arthritic hands (that was an issue back then). When this was scoffed at by the rest of the design team, she proposed to the head of the firm that she be outfitted as an 85-year-old so she could experience daily activities as they did. She was not talking about dressing “old” and carrying a cane. She was prosthetically altered. When dressed, she was wearing a back brace that prevented her from standing straight, legs and hands were taped with splints to limit movement, and glasses with foggy lenses obscured her naturally sharp vision.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Patricia Moore is recognized internationally and has received many awards for her ground-breaking work. The following video was made when she was honoured by the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she received her first degree.

More than the story she tells, notice how she tells it. Listen to her choice of words and tone of voice. Look at her eyes. She is an outstanding example of what it looks like when someone embodies empathy.

If only we would all choose to take on an empathetic mindset and embody it. Think what a different world we could live in!

Next week, we’ll look at empathy from the individual point of view—how we learn empathy and can practise it in our daily lives.

Empathy. In business?!

Experiencing a pandemic has got many of us reflecting on what is working in our world and what isn’t. In essence, it has shone a spotlight on our dysfunctions.

Much of what is wrong (or right) with our systems starts with our collective mindset.

A mindset is a set of assumptions, methods, or notions held by a person or group. It’s a habitual or characteristic mental attitude that determines how we interpret and respond to situations individually and collectively.  We become so used to our mindsets that we don’t see that our thinking is fixed in this particular way. To us it’s normal.

If you observe behaviours of yourself and others around you, it’s not difficult to identify mindsets. Here are a few examples of what you might discover…

  • Sufficiency mindset—There is enough, and I am enough.
  • Growth mindset—Life is about expanding awareness and continual learning.
  • Thrift mindset—It’s my responsibility to use resources, both mine and the planet’s, wisely.
  • Sustainability mindset—What I do must contribute to life carrying on, now and in the future.


Empathy is also a mindset, and the subject for today. This post was prompted by Simon Sinek‘s talk on empathy. Since he’s known for his consulting work with businesses and organizations, I was curious. Empathy is certainly not something I associate with business, so I wondered what he had to say about it.

Simon Sinek is one of the visionary thinkers of our time. In his work with businesses and organizations, he discovered how great leaders think, act and communicate. His first TED Talk, in 2009, is the third-most-watched with 40 million views and subtitles in 47 languages. He hss also authored several best-selling books, the most recent being The Infinite Game.

Simon Sinek describes himself as an unshakable optimist who believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. That undertone is what I find refreshing about this talk—the reassurance that my instincts are correct, that we don’t need to buy into the heartless model of business, that business can and needs to operate from a different mindset.

Key points…

  • The work world has changed in the past twenty to thirty years in ways that are bad for people and bad for business.
  •  We are suffering from the side effects of business theories left over from the end of last century.
  • The concept of shareholder supremacy was proposed in the late 1980s, popularized in the 90s, and is standard form today.
  • As a result, the priority of companies has become maximization of shareholder value. That’s considered normal today, and we don’t even see it as broken, or damaged, or wrong, or outdated.
  • The concept of mass layoffs—using someone’s livelihood to balance the books—is another part of the outdated model. Yet it’s become so normal in America that we don’t even understand how damaging and broken it is, not only to human beings but to business.
  • The practice of getting the best (i.e. most) out of people, wringing everything out of them, is endemic.
  • All of this has created a culture where workers lie, hide, and fake in hopes of surviving in the workplace.
  • When the model of shareholder supremacy became the norm in the 1980s and 90s, it was a very different time—boom years, relatively peaceful, and a kinder gentler cold war (when no one had to practice hiding under desks in school). We are no longer in these times, and old models cannot work today.
  • The alternative is to create a workplace where people do not come to work afraid, a culture where they feel safe to say I don’t know what I’m doing, I need help, I made a mistake, I’m worried. 
  • Workers thrive under an empathetic leader who creates an environment where they feel cared for as human beings, where they are helped to be at their natural best rather than having all their best wrung out of them.

More next week about empathy at work…in ways that affect us every day.