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

Written by 

I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (, a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Rely On Empathy”

  1. 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. 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. 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?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.