When people talk about the role of empathy in innovation, they usually mean using empathy as a means of discovering problems that are worth solving. The entire field of design thinking is predicated on using empathy as the first step to uncover problems another person is facing. By putting yourself in another’s shoes, one can more accurately determine what they might be going through in a particular situation which in turn helps in devising new solutions.
Empathy is indeed one of many routes for creative ideas, but the connection between empathy and innovation is much more intertwined than simply being a trigger for discovering problems.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is described as “a complex psychological response in which observation, memory, knowledge, and reasoning are combined to yield insights into the thoughts and feelings of others.” In the empathetic state, there may be some temporary identification with the other, but at no point is there any confusion between the self and the other.
Research indicates that there are two empathy mechanisms – a basic emotional system and a more advanced cognitive perspective-taking system. These two systems use different neural pathways and can get triggered in parallel. Emotional empathy is when you instantly feel the same emotions that the other person is feeling even when you don’t know their whole story, and one theory attributes this to the presence of mirror neurons in our brain. For example, seeing strong emotions like fear or distress on another person’s face can instantly create the same emotion inside us. Cognitive empathy, on the other hand, is about taking the other person’s perspective in order to determine how they might be thinking and feeling in a situation. It is based on conscious reasoning and while emotions are still generated, they are more controlled.
As an example, say one of your employees shares a stressful family situation. With emotional empathy, you detect his stress and immediately experience the same emotion. This sudden burst of emotions might cause you to relive a time when you went through a similar situation which in turn further amplifies those feelings. In the cognitive empathy case, cognition takes the lead and you focus on understanding your employee’s perspective. You actively try to recall a similar situation you faced before along with its associated challenges, which gives you insights on what your employee might be worried about even when those aspects are not verbalized.
One way to distinguish between the two types of empathy is that emotional empathy is about “I feel what you feel” while cognitive empathy is about “I understand what you are thinking.” And it turns out that of the two, cognitive empathy has some surprising benefits in the workplace.
How Cognitive Empathy Improves Innovation and Decision Making
One of the immediate benefits of cognitive empathy is that it puts one in a problem solving mode and allows one to come up with more novel solutions. With emotional empathy on the other hand, the cocktail of emotions often makes it harder to focus on finding solutions.
The reason cognitive empathy is so effective is that it relies on perspective taking, which also happens to be a key mechanism for creative thinking. In perspective taking, one has to temporarily drop their own way of thinking (which reduces self-bias), and instead pay attention to the other person’s point of view. Integrating multiple perspectives leads to new insights about the problem as well as novel ways in addressing them.
Perspective taking also underlies good listening skills because the ability to analyze and integrate a conflicting mental model from another demonstrates to them in a very concrete way that their ideas have value. For similar reasons, cognitive empathy shows superior results when it comes to negotiating. In a series of experiments involving MBA students, researchers found that perspective-takers were able to uncover underlying interests and generate more creative solutions with greater collective and individual games than emotional empathizers. The authors summarized, “that in mixed-motive interactions, it is better to ‘‘think for’’ than to ‘‘feel for’’ one’s adversaries—more beneficial to get inside their heads than to have them inside one’s own heart.”
The benefit of practicing cognitive empathy extends well beyond isolated incidents – adopting perspective taking as a habit allows innovative ideas to emerge from routine discussions. As people become more cognitively empathetic, the overall creativity and innovation levels of an organization increases. Empathetic leaders play a crucial role in the process of building organizational innovation. A recent study found that people with highly empathetic senior leaders were 4.7x more likely to report being innovative at work compared to people with less empathetic senior leaders.
How To Build Cognitive Empathy
A more recent model of empathy based on brain lesions suggests that the two empathic systems are independent and are simultaneously triggered. Using cognitive empathy in any situation therefore requires striking the right balance between emotions and problem solving. Here are three things to keep in mind for cognitive empathy:
- Concern For Others: The first step towards cognitive empathy starts with a genuine concern for others. Without this, any attempt to demonstrate empathy will come across as inauthentic. Having a prosocial motivation has been shown to encourage perspective taking and enhance overall creativity of solutions.
- Maintain Self Awareness: A key challenge in perspective taking is the egocentric bias. We see others through our own beliefs and knowledge, making it hard to fully understand their perspective. A degree of self awareness can help overcome the egocentric bias by deliberately suppressing our own mental models. Self awareness is also useful in regulating emotions and keeping the focus on problem solving.
- Build Perspective: Finally, the goal of cognitive empathy is to understand the other’s perspective in order to find effective solutions. The easiest situation to relate to is one where you have had a similar experience but if that doesn’t apply, then several other cognitive techniques can help. You could use abstraction to find a situation that uses the core emotion (e.g. anxiety but in a different scenario), use counterfactual thinking (“what if..”) to imagine how you would feel in a similar situation or use associative thinking to piece together different experiences into a new scenario. Consciously constructing a relevant scenario can then give insights on what the other person is dealing with and how to improve the situation. The same cognitive techniques that help build perspective are also core to creative thinking so practicing cognitive empathy regularly increases cognitive flexibility and problem solving skills.
Cognitive empathy is the mental capacity to take another person’s perspective where the goal is not to experience the other person’s mental state but to understand it better. That understanding allows one to gain insights into aspects that people may not be verbalizing. Cognitive empathy is not just useful in a specific situation – it increases mental flexibility and problem solving skills more generally. The more people practice cognitive empathy in an organization, the more they become better at creativity due to shared cognitive mechanisms.
This is not to say that emotional empathy has no value. Being able to pick up and reflect others emotions helps in relationship building and is likely more valuable in the long-term than in the short-term. However, as the nature of work shifts more towards hybrid and remote where it’s not always possible to pick up on nonverbal cues that trigger mirror neurons, the role of cognitive empathy becomes much more important.
By consciously incorporating cognitive empathy, organizations can become both kinder and smarter.