Empathy matters. That’s the takeaway of a growing body of evidence from research on industries ranging from airlines to technology. Looking at issues from another point of view improves everything from productivity and employee morale to financial performance and customer satisfaction.
This year, Kellogg is shining a light on the power of empathy by launching the Kabiller Science of Empathy Prize to recognize faculty members leading cutting-edge research on empathy and Kellogg graduates who lead with exceptional empathy or are thought leaders in the field. The prize was made possible by David G. Kabiller ’87 (NU ’85), co-founder and head of business development at global investment management firm AQR. The inaugural winners are Nicole Stephens, Jeanne Brett Chair and Professor of Management & Organizations at Kellogg, and Michael George ’85 (NU ’83), the recently retired president and CEO of QVC parent company Qurate Retail Inc.
Here, Kabiller, Stephens and George talk about empathy in business and beyond, including how to define it, barriers to adopting it, research affirming its importance, and their own efforts to lead with empathy in ways large and small.
All three leaders agree that everyone has the capacity to cultivate greater empathy, given the right circumstances and support.
“Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s or another group’s experiences,” Stephens says. It’s about understanding someone else’s viewpoint, and responding to them with their perspective in mind, she says.
Kabiller agrees that empathy is critical to relationships: “Recognizing others’ needs builds trust and respect; it’s about authenticity. People can sense truth.” He considers empathy the “secret ingredient” in life and believes everyone is born with the potential to become more empathetic. “The question is how to reach your maximum potential; how to strengthen that muscle rather than letting it atrophy,” he says.
For George, who led the transformation of QVC into Qurate Retail, a Fortune 500 business comprising seven leading consumer lifestyle brands, empathy is about “trying to really understand in a visceral way the perspectives, beliefs and life experiences of others in ways that can help you deepen relationships.” It goes beyond niceness, he says: “It’s not just being friendly. It’s about forging deep connectivity that leads to better outcomes in whatever institution, environment or family setting we’re in. It means approaching every interaction in a way that tries to get to that deep mutual understanding and shared respect that lead to good things.”
This isn’t easy in many circumstances, and even those with good intentions can be led astray by following the Golden Rule — the idea that we should treat others in the same way we would want to be treated. “The problem is that we often get people wrong,” Stephens says. “They’re often not the same as we are, so the Golden Rule can backfire.”
Instead, she suggests following the Platinum Rule: responding to others in the way that they want to be treated. “You have to recognize that individuals — including yourself — are culturally shaped, so different people with different life circumstances will see the same situation differently,” she says. “Then you’ll be more inclined to ask questions and try to understand others.”
In spring 2022 Kellogg will debut its Leading with Empathy course, taught by Professor Brenda Ellington Booth. Learn more about her vision and goals for the class.
Understanding the true meaning of empathy is a critical step. But it’s not enough, as we all face multiple barriers to forming and acting on empathy.
Much of Stephens’s research focuses on the challenges of engaging across the cultural divides of social class and race or ethnicity in the United States. “One of the reasons people in the U.S. find it especially challenging to empathize with others from different backgrounds is that the dominant American perspective of individualism makes empathy a real uphill battle — people here tend to see others as independent from their social contexts,” she says. That’s a problem, given that empathy is, at its core, about recognizing that other people in different contexts will have different experiences than you do and trying to understand those social experiences.
Stephens’s research on people’s perceptions of others’ behavior during Hurricane Katrina starkly illuminates the empathy deficit that can be caused by cultural divides. The team interviewed diverse survivors and observers of the hurricane in an effort to understand their motivations and perceptions during and after the 2005 disaster. They were particularly interested in how middle- and upper-class, mostly white observers viewed the mostly working-class Black residents who stayed in hurricane-threatened areas rather than evacuate.
Overall, survivors’ social class and race shaped both their perceptions of the right thing to do during the hurricane and others’ subsequent assessment of their behavior. People largely imposed their own ideas of the best course of action on those they observed, without understanding others’ mindsets and constraints.
“The survivors who evacuated were far more likely to talk about themselves in terms of independence,” Stephens says. “They believed they influenced the situation and found a way to evacuate, questioning why ‘those other people’ chose to stay.” In contrast, those who stayed were more likely to talk about the importance of caring for and connecting to others and the role of family, suggesting a clear divide.
In another study, Stephens found that higher education in the U.S. follows a similar model of individualism. “Students are expected to pave their own paths, develop their personal passions and express their ideas confidently in class, often working individually,” Stephens says. “A certain set of cultural norms are prioritized and taken for granted.” But not all students come to college with an individualistic mindset, especially those from underserved backgrounds, such as the growing cohort of first-generation university students.
The potential culture clash creates an empathy gap that plays out not only in students’ informal interactions but also in formal processes such as how grades are assigned, undermining students’ performance, as Stephens notes: “Institutions take these cultural narratives about what it means to be a good student and use them to evaluate students individually rather than considering that some students’ true potential might emerge when they’re working with someone else.”
Breaking through such barriers requires a diligent, innovative approach to reap the rewards of an empathy-rich culture.
At Qurate Retail, George worked hard to unify multiple disparate companies and brands into a more cohesive, supportive culture: “We had thousands of team members with all these different life experiences. So we went through this process of dialogue and reflection about what mattered and came out with a series of five core principles, one of which is ‘act with empathy.’” Starting from that foundation, leaders and employees defined three behaviors that promote empathy: seeing through the eyes of others, assuming positive intent, and seeking diverse perspectives.
Such shared understanding of empathy proved critical when Qurate Retail faced the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We understood we needed to start with the safety and welfare of our team members,” George says. “During televised shows, all of our on-screen guests joined the broadcast from home. And we had to keep our distribution center team members safe as well.
Similarly, team members strove to take colleagues’ perspectives. “What is that young parent dealing with, trapped at home while trying to be a productive team member?” George says. “What can we do to support that person?”
Like Qurate Retail, AQR has taken an empathy-focused approach that includes promoting employee self-care, Kabiller says. The firm’s QUⱯNTA Academy learning and development program is built on pillars including leadership and management and personal well-being, and features guest lectures on topics such as getting better sleep. “It’s an institutionalization of empathy to show we care about our people,” Kabiller says.
Outside the business domain, Stephens has developed an intervention called difference education to counter the dominant individualistic narrative in colleges and universities, or “the idea that people are in charge of their own fates and that if you struggle in college, it’s your own fault,” as she says. “A lot of students start to feel like they just don’t belong or can’t cut it.”
The approach helps students understand it’s normal to face challenges as the first in their families to go to college. “We try to change the narrative so that students understand how their different social context before college shapes the nature of their college experience, to empower them to take advantage of the resources available to them,” Stephens says.
These examples highlight the power of an empathy-driven approach, something Kabiller and George have consciously made part of their leadership styles.
“You have to care about your people, especially with the cynical view toward capitalism today,” Kabiller says. “Our responsibility as leaders is to be in service of our people. If you spend time making sure your employees are cared for, we’ll have a much better world.”
Kabiller took that empathy-driven approach recently when he was approached by a high-performing midlevel AQR employee. The team member, who was managing a product facing marketplace challenges, told Kabiller that he had received an attractive offer to join another business. “I didn’t meet him with alarm or anger,” Kabiller says. “I met him with empathy.”
Having faced similar market-related challenges early as a founder, Kabiller could relate to his junior colleague. Together they discussed what the employee cared about — authenticity and humility —and whether the prospective employer fit those values. They also discussed additional responsibilities he might take on at AQR. “He called me shortly after our conversation and said he’s going to stay,” Kabiller says.
George, too, strives to consider other perspectives in all relationships. “In any given interaction I’m going to do a lot more listening than talking,” he says. “And I’m going to listen with genuine curiosity.” He also uses a Results Pyramid framework to link life experience to corporate performance: “At the bottom of the pyramid are life experiences, which form beliefs we have. Those beliefs, in turn, prompt the choices and the actions we take, all of which leads to the results of the company or whatever it is we’re working on.
“Empathy lives at the bottom of the pyramid,” he continues. “Empathy lives in understanding others’ life experiences and the beliefs those create. I always find that when we do that, you unlock what we are stuck on. It’s probably because there are some profoundly different experiences that are shaping our beliefs.”
In service of promoting empathy firmwide, George sent weekly notes to team members from the start of his Qurate Retail tenure. Called “Open Mikes,” the letters focused on “amazing things team members were doing that I wanted to share, and things about my family. Then people would write back and tell their stories about their children,” he says. The practice helped George, a self-described introvert, connect with his employees, some of whom remembered his stories from those letters years later: “I’m better in a quiet room reflecting and writing a note than having a [face-to-face] conversation. It’s about showing up every day and building trust.”
“Culture is a journey,” George says. “You’re always working to improve it.” At Qurate Retail, the five guiding principles of empathy are embedded into every facet of the organization, including training programs, goal setting and performance management. “The principles have created this shared aspiration for how we can grow as individuals and grow as a company,” George says.
The results are tangible. Qurate Retail employees’ enhanced ability to empathize with one another has helped them navigate challenging discussions about social justice, including after the murder of George Floyd. “It truly allowed everyone to bring their own life experiences and their own challenges into the workplace, making us better citizens of the company and of the world,” George says.
Internal surveys suggest team members have never been “more engaged, more positive about the company and more positive about the work than during this very difficult time,” George says. “There’s a ‘scare factor’ in the corporate world that if you have team members working from home they’re not going to be contributing as much as if they’re in the office. We found the opposite: Everyone wanted to step up, make a difference and have an impact.”
Kabiller agrees that empathy can be a strong source of impact. Along with leading empathetically at AQR, he promotes empathy through the Science of Empathy Prize and other donations, including a generous gift to Northwestern to support underserved athletes.
Kabiller believes that Kellogg plays a fundamental role in understanding and enhancing the power of empathy: “Kellogg has always prioritized the human dimension of management: the importance of the individual and the positive impact that comes from working together. Ultimately, I believe the purpose of Kellogg is to continue to help people grow to their maximum potential, not only to the benefit of their work, but to the broader world.”
For more on Kabiller, please visit our alumni virtual programs page to listen to his past recording or to register for his upcoming talk on empathy.
In spring 2022 Kellogg will debut its Leading with Empathy course, taught by Brenda Ellington Booth, clinical professor of management and organizations. Here, Booth discusses the vision and goals for the class.
“Empathy is being able to see someone else's perspective, to metaphorically walk in their shoes,” Booth says. “Being human is our common denominator, but you need to be willing to have conversations to understand where people are coming from.”
Indeed, empathy is a critical attribute for leaders, as Booth notes: “You can't be a leader in a vacuum. People are part of the equation, whether your leadership team, board, employees, or customers. Companies that pay attention to employees’ and others’ needs and the business’s impact on the world have an advantage.”
Booth’s upcoming class aims to prepare Kellogg students to be empathetic future leaders. The course’s subtitle speaks to the objective: Enhancing Your Emotional Intelligence in a Diverse Setting. “Empathy is the social awareness part of emotional intelligence, how you operate in the context of others,” Booth says. “Diverse teams can’t be effective unless members are willing to understand other perspectives.”
To boost students’ social awareness, the class will help them articulate their individual life stories and how those impact the way they see the world—first by writing their stories then sharing these with the class. “As they share their stories I’ll be helping them see what connects and disconnects us,” Booth says. “For those from non-dominant culture it will help them find and share their voice. For dominant-culture students it will help them hear those minority voices. It goes both ways, with the goal of creating a safe space by working on sources of disconnection.”
Similarly, Booth will run an “In-group, Out-group” exercise where members of specific groups—such as women, LGBTQ individuals, or first-generation college students—share details of their experience moving through Kellogg. “It helps the audience realize, ‘I had no idea you went through that,’” Booth says. “Listening opens up the heart-strings. The agenda is just to understand. What makes it so powerful is that everyone is a Kellogg peer; they all share that.”
In closing, Booth notes how the class reinforces Kellogg’s collaboration-focused culture: “When you have to collaborate with people, it's about listening and understanding. This class gets students to a deeper level, and gives them a safe space to talk about things they might not otherwise, for greater shared understanding, greater empathy.”