We don't really understand empathy, but we know business could do with a little more

Our understanding of empathy is pretty limited, but many figures are calling for change. Corporate culture is beginning to recognise the need to put yourself in someone else's shoes.

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Business buzzwords are changing. Pervasive gibberish like “mission-critical optimisation” and “blue-skies thinking” is in decline; instead we’re witnessing the rise – sorry, “phase-in” – of terms like social innovation and sustainability. Corporations now want to show you not just that they care, but that they really care. Empathy is the latest addition to the management dictionary.

There’s a huge profit motive galvanising this change. Belinda Parmar, author of The Empathy Era, thinks we’re on the cusp of a corporate revolution. “Empathy is the key to profit,” she says. “It is a natural social resource that has, for years, been left untapped by an outdated corporate model, hampered and trussed up by its systemising protocol. The corporate world is in need of rehabilitation. It needs to redress its empathy deficit.”

But what actually is it? Derived from the Greek words em (in) and pathos (feeling), empathy was first introduced to English in 1909 by psychologist Edward Titchener in an attempt to translate the rather more aggressive-sounding German equivalent, Einfühlungsvermögen. The idea of “feeling-in” means the ability to understand and share other people’s emotions.

How this works is another question. The neuroscience behind emotions is notoriously complex but one idea that Parmar – who was recently knighted for services to women in technology – cites is the “Empathising-Systemising (E-S) Theory”, proposed by psychologist and autism expert Simon Baron-Cohen. He suggests the male brain is naturally more inclined to systemising – looking for underlying sets of rules and patterns – than to empathising, a trait more common in women.

Based on a questionnaire designed to gauge your “Emotional Quotient”, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders are categorised to represent the “extreme male brain” – sometimes possessing huge talents in maths and physics but struggling with social interaction. The gendered terms represent the frequency with which the characteristics are present in men and women, but Baron-Cohen suggests both genders can have the ‘other’ brain.

It’s still very much a theory – we haven’t, for instance, found any neurological differences using MRI scans to support the idea of empathising or systemising brains, which means much of the behaviour may be down to social conditioning. But it does go some way to explaining other anomalies, like the higher prevalence of autism in boys than girls. Separately, the E-S theory is also a better predictor than gender of who goes on to study STEM subjects.

It sounds a bit pseudo-sciencey but there aren't many better theories out there: empathy research still has a long way to go. Despite this, even these preliminary findings have important ramifications for businesses. Parmar claims systemisers tend to be rewarded for their ability to optimise, particularly in male-dominated sectors like science and technology which are infamous for their lack of empathy. This leads to a culture with little time for feelings, "restricting imagination and creativity in the workplace". You can see why the management is getting worried.

And it isn’t just business which lacks the ability to empathise. Before becoming president, Barack Obama described the great need for compassion in times of economic crisis. "There's a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit,” he said. “But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit - the ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who's hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.”

He’s not alone. Even our politicians are beginning to realise the need to – at the very least – appear empathic. Ed Miliband referred to empathy seven times in a recent speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects as he claimed it was one of the “most underrated virtues” in politics. According to the Sunday Times the Labour leader has been meeting up with Baron-Cohen in an attempt to better connect with the public. Political stunt it may be – but if it works, then empathy might be more than just a buzzword.