A Path Towards An Empathic Culture

April 18, 2022

Here’s an interesting statistical coincidence.

In 2021, a year with a 57% turnover rate (according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics), 57% of people who quit their jobs did so because of their direct managers.

What’s going on with management? Considering that toxic culture is ten times more likely to predict turnover than compensation rates, (according to the MIT Sloan Review) it should be clear that a lack of empathy is contributing in no small way to the great resignation. 

After all, 97% of employees believe empathy is essential for a healthy workplace culture (Society for Human Resource Management). When there is a strong culture of empathy, this leads to:

  • A 56% increase in job performance
  • A 50% drop in turnover risk
  • A 75% reduction in sick days.

Designing empathic leadership programs is multifaceted. We at Empathable with some of the top minds in their fields to understand how to ‘experientialize’ empathy well. 

So there’s plenty to talk about when it comes to designing a pathway to empathic culture, but today I want to focus on an easy takeaway that you can begin to apply the moment you finish reading this.

DEI needs to stop giving people the impression that their perspectives are wrong. Even when they are.

I’ve led thousands of DEI, Empathy, and Belonging trainings. And I’ve tried countless times to tell team members at a company what is right and wrong, be it their approach to inclusive terminology, their understanding of implicit bias, or the way they consider their own privilege. I have told people flat out, politely and not, that they’re wrong. 

I have also many times in training tried as empathically, gently, and graciously as possible to help people see another perspective when their own perspective might unknowingly contain harmful biases towards their marginalized colleagues.

I’ve emerged on the other side of this experience with the realization that Empathy, Belonging, or DEI trainings that attempt to tell people what to think, or that they’re wrong, simply do not work. Or at least, not often enough to make it worth it. 

So I’ve stopped entirely. I do almost nothing when these harmful perspectives are shared. And I think this approach within training, can be revolutionary.

In our immersive experiential trainings, we share real moments in real people’s lives. Once in a while, a participant in a training will sincerely state, with genuine intentions, something that sounds like this:

“We all have a fair chance. Why should employees of color receive special treatment?”

“By talking about George Floyd and racism at work, aren’t we making it worse?”

“It’s hard for me to remember someone’s pronouns. It feels like that’s asking a lot.”

These are statements I still hear with new clients – and I no longer correct them.

If this seems highly contradictory to most trainers and to the idea of being an advocate, I get that. You might even be outraged by the thought that we shouldn’t correct such statements – and that outrage would be very understandable. After all, letting harmful viewpoints slide can feel like being complicit in upholding the attitudes of unjust and inequitable systems.

Our journey at Empathable has led us to an understanding of the distinction between a non-response and simply being passive. It’s entirely possible for them to be one and the same, but here’s what I do to make sure they’re not. 

I let other members of their team in the training who are different from them share their own perspectives. We’ve designed our experiences to enact this diverse perspective sharing without us having to ask, making it voluntary, which works very well. When it’s a homogenous group of people, I’ll share the perspective of other diverse people I’ve met, being explicit that I’m not implying this perspective is more valid than theirs.

Then I wait. 

Most of the time, this results in them coming to a realization themselves, on their own, in their own time. It works like a charm. 

We may be one of the only DEI, Belonging, and Empathy programs out there that doesn’t tell people they’re wrong. I’m reminded of a statement by the renowned psychologist and relationship expert Esther Perel: “You can be right, or you can be married.”

I also think about the social scientific understanding that it’s important to create space for uncertainty when encouraging greater interest in the perspectives of others, and what many think of as “empathy.” When we tell people they’re wrong, we can eliminate the opportunity for uncertainty to develop into curiosity. 

In their paper Interest Development and Its Relation to Curiosity, psychologists Suzanne Hidi and K. Ann Renninger define curiosity as “the motivation to close a knowledge gap driven by uncertainty.” They also state, “when an existing, more developed interest initiates […] curiosity, continued engagement (and information search) is likely.”

Practically speaking, we can understand through our own life experiences that people aren’t always ready to hear the things we’re saying to them, and trying to convince them of a belief that contradicts their experience will often lead them to shut down. The dangerous result is that they check out of continued learning.

Why is being told we’re wrong so harmful to learning in general?

In the theory of experiential learning, first developed by David Kolb in 1984 (Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development), Kolb argues four steps occur every time we learn something new: experiencing, reflecting on the experience, learning from the experience, and acting based on what you’ve learned. The theory also suggests that someone can enter or exit at any stage, but for meaningful learning to occur, all four stages must be experienced.

Each of the above steps can require painstaking mental awareness, which explains why major shifts can be so difficult. Simply put, it takes a lot of work to discover something new.

Being told we’re wrong can be particularly harmful in DEI work. In a paper entitled “Against comfort: Political implications of evading discomfort,” Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic states, “We are drawn to people in whose company we feel comfortable and avoid situations and people that make us uncomfortable… visceral gut feelings like discomfort are not merely private emotional experiences but in a certain sense collective and public.”

Being told we’re wrong is an uncomfortable feeling. This discomfort can be tangled up in larger social topics like race and gender, so when someone’s viewpoint is challenged, this can have a collective burden attached to it. This discomfort can at times tap into and represent a widely held cultural misunderstanding. In other words, the individual who suggests that talking about George Floyd and racism is just making the situation worse isn’t only speaking for themselves; they’re speaking for a collective discomfort they have experienced, consciously or not, prior to the moment you find them in. So in a sense, you’re not arguing with an individual’s discomfort in a particular moment –  you’re trying to take on a collective burden this person doesn’t even realize they’re carrying.

Instead, when we allow space for what they have to say, our lack of pushback allows them to feel their worldview is more connected to ours. This concept is the backbone of empathetic learning. When we let the person know that we hear what they’re saying, or even thank them for sharing, we are building a bridge between our two perspectives. This can often lead to a shift – perhaps not immediately, but later on in the experience they might mention something that they learned, something that led them to feel there was greater nuance to a topic and caused them to revisit their earlier viewpoint.

By the end of our sessions, or in follow-ups, people will come back and say things like,

“I was talking with a Black colleague after the training, and I asked her her perspective, which made me realize something I didn’t before.”


“I didn’t realize how easy it can be to correct myself when I get someone’s pronouns wrong.”

You’ll notice that in those two statements, two things have happened:

  1. People are learning through their own life experiences. These experiences are necessary to assimilate the new perspectives they’ve encountered within our immersive learning program.
  2. When they self-correct, they don’t actually verbalize that they were wrong to begin with. But they’ve learned and become more empathetic.

People are much more comfortable teaching themselves than being told what to do. The book, How People Learn, put out by The Committee on Developments in the Science of Learning, describes this as the power of intrinsic motivation – a process where people are motivated to learn out of their own curiosity. The most impactful learning occurs not in didactic environments, where the  teacher imparts knowledge to the student, but where students are able to arrive at the knowledge themselves. By validating participants’ emotions and opinions, you can offer a comfortable place for them to explore diversity and reach their own conclusions. 

Of course, we’re not advocating for people not to speak up when a colleague says something unintentionally racist, sexist, or genderist. In our theory of change on shifting organizational bias, we talk about how important it is to have two people in every room speaking up. But in these moments, the person speaking up is not a trainer, but a colleague.

Allowing empathy to emerge is especially powerful when it occurs in an immersive experience. Rather than being told what is right or wrong, participants are asked to see another perspective. This observational lens allows them to more easily fill in the space between their subjective truth and that which they are experiencing. 

We once held a program at a municipality in the south. During an immersive experience around the idea of taking and holding physical space, we shared the real-life example of a white person not moving out of the way for a person of color on the sidewalk. Afterward, her companion, a Black woman, pushed her way through a couple taking up the whole sidewalk, and said,

“Watch where you’re going”

Then to her friend, whose shoes you’re walking in as a participant, she said,

“You see, it’s important to take up space. Because you do belong here.”

After the experience, a white participant spoke up immediately and said, “Well, I think that was just rude! I move out of the way for people all the time.” 

It would have been tempting here to develop some racial context around their comment to explain what they didn’t understand. Instead, we just gave space for the viewpoint to exist, free of our own contextualization. 

A week later, during a follow-up, the same person came back and said,“I still don’t know how I feel about that experience, I still think it was rude, but I do notice it’s changed the way I take up space on the sidewalk. I’m much more aware of it now.”

They came back with greater clarity on how their reality intersects with those around them because they were given room to connect the dots themselves. 

When we’re not very familiar with a topic, it will almost always take us longer to process information. Our lab director, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, in her book, Seven and a Half Lessons about the Brain, tells us, “The most expensive tasks that brains do are (1) moving your body and (2) learning something new. They have a metabolic cost that may feel unpleasant. So, feeling bad doesn’t always mean that something bad happened. You might just be doing something really hard.”

A hard thing, like an inner revolution of the biased tyranny of the mind in a well-meaning colleague: well, that might take, at the very least, letting them sleep on it.