While pulling together this post, I mentioned to a friend, a mid-career college instructor, that I was writing a blog post on empathy and organizational effectiveness, and she laughed and wished me luck.

Empathy may be a bit of a management trend, but it’s not a term that most people associate, or, let’s be fair, have experienced from their organizations. Scientific management, the approach to people at work that informed the last century of management solutions, is premised on the idea that the profitable function of the whole trumps the needs and preferences of people doing the work. Nor do you have to reach back into organizational pre-history to see that innovative products and services—created with great empathy for the customer—can be delivered without regard for and at the expense of the employees doing the work.

We have ample examples of organizations designing for the bottom line. Design thinking, however, challenges us to keep the bottom line in mind while making people the heroes of the story. After all, product designers have been doing this for year.


Design is a quest, Tim Brown tells us in Change by Design is a “quest to match human needs with available technical resources within the practical constraints of business.” If we can use design to improve the experience of other, the people we call our customers, why not use it to improve the experience of the people with whom we work?

Empathy in design thinking starts with an exploration of people’s day-to-day.  We can explore by drawing on a variety of cross-disciplinary tools including empathy maps, ethnographic research, GEMBA walks, and one-on-one interviews. The tools are helpful but they’re secondary to the organization’s willingness to understand how people actually experience their time at work and to design solutions that, from the employee perspective, make that experience better.