A 6-Step Program to Measure and Evaluate Your Corporate Empathy

Most people think empathy is just something you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it’s an existential priority of a business.” –Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

There are over 100 different papers on measuring empathy, but most will only tell you how likely you are to become a psychopath. If that’s what you’re looking for, try this social intelligence test.

What we’re talking about here is corporate empathy; the degree to which your employees, stakeholders, business partners, customers, and others see your organization as having the ability to understand and share their feelings. Many modern CEOs (like Satya Nadella, in the quote above) see empathy as essential to a well-run business. For some examples of how empathy greases the wheels of society and business, see our article “Why You Need to Care About Empathy in 2019.”

It’s not a new concept. Empathy is what Dr. James Grunig calls “control mutuality,” that feeling that each person in a relationship understands each other and neither is trying to dominate the other. He suggests that statements like the following describe feelings towards an empathetic organization:

  • This organization believes the opinions of people like me are legitimate.
  • This organization really listens to what people like me have to say.
  • The management of this organization gives people like me enough say in the decision-making process.
  • This organization treats people like me fairly and justly.
  • Whenever this organization makes an important decision, I know it will be concerned about people like me.
  • I believe that this organization takes the opinions of people like me into account when making decisions.

Attempts to measure corporate empathy seem to have begun around 2014, when UK-based consultancy Lady Geek launched its Equity Index. It’s based on a variety of data, including social media interactions, some proprietary survey data, publicly available data such as ratio of women to men on the board, frequency of complaints, and level controversy. The most recent version was published in 2016.

But today, measuring empathy is increasingly become a staple in organizational measurement. Recently a UK-based consultancy proposed a model  to measure six aspects of empathy: empowerment, reassurance, ethics, collaboration, belonging, and authenticity. And yet another group, Project 2030, is trying to make empathy measurement mandatory for corporations by 2030. It proposes a number of criteria on which to base an evaluation of empathy, such as diversity, salaries, structure, ethical products, civic responsibility, fair trade, etc. And consultancies are already producing reports, like the Businesssolver State of Workplace Empathy Study, that suggest it’s a “thing” you need to pay attention to.

So there are plenty of good business reasons why you should care about your corporate empathy and want to increase it. Of course, if you’re going to manage empathy, you need a way to measure it. We suggest the following six steps:

Step 1. Start with business goals

Let’s consider the possible goals you might set for your empathy-building program. Most companies have pretty simple goals: make more money and/or increase shareholder value. Communications typically supports those goals by enhancing and protecting the organization’s reputation, sending out messages that will win new customers and retain existing ones, and helping to attract and retain talent.

So where in your organization does empathy fit? It assists in all those goals. In fact, 7% of CEOs surveyed by Businesssolver believe that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace.

Increasingly, consumers make purchasing decisions based on perceptions of common goals. For instance, I use Lyft religiously because they offer rides to the polls for free on Election Day, and I spend all my Election Days driving voters to the polls. The fact that we share that value makes my choice in ride-sharing services easy. Likewise, when shoppers perceive that an organization is empathetic to their values and supports the issues they care about, their shopping decisions are easier. So, financial goals you might have for your program to increase empathy might include, “Shorten the sales cycle,” or “Increase qualified leads.”

Additionally, empathy is necessary if you want to attract and retain talent. 96 percent of employees believe that it is important for an employer to demonstrate empathy, according to Businesssolver. Nine out of ten employees say they are more likely to remain with an organization that empathizes with their needs, and eight of ten will work longer hours for an empathetic employer.

Conversely 79 percent of employees would consider leaving their organization if it became less empathetic. So another business outcome could be “lower costs of attracting and hiring and training new employees.” You could compare against the costs of your empathy-building program and I bet you’ll find some ROI in there.

Step 2. Define what empathy looks like in your organization.

Every measurement program needs to be tailored to the environment and business goals of the particular organization, so you will need to chose what empathy means for you. For instance, Satya Nadella at Microsoft has a definition in his head that’s probably very different than Howard Shultz has over at Starbucks.

So ask your leadership team what they think an empathetic boss looks like, or what are the characteristics of an empathetic team or organization. This is where the indexes I mentioned above might be useful. Possible characteristics include:

  • Empowers others
  • Ethical
  • Collaborative
  • Authentic
  • Diverse
  • Good benefits
  • Sustainable
  • Flexible
  • Trustworthy

These might translate into statements such as “Going the extra mile to help others meet deadlines,” “Listens well,” “Is flexible,” “Advocates for others,” or “Makes time to talk through a problem.” Some components might be more important than others, so rank them in order of priority.

Step 3. Define the specific metrics you will track.

Once you’ve defined your components of empathy you will need to agree on specific metrics to measure them. Metrics typically fall into three categories:

1. Activity or output metrics. These might include elements like percentage of favorable vs. unfavorable comments on Glassdoor, or percentage of social conversations mentioning your brand in the context of empathy, or one or more of the empathy elements you’ve defined.

2. Attitude or perception metrics. These metrics are typically established by surveys and calculated based on percentage of respondents agreeing with specific statements such as, “To what extent do you feel that issues that concern you are listened to and acted upon?”

3. Outcome metrics. Typical outcome metrics relate to the business goals, and might include decrease in complaints, or increased employee or customer retention.

Step 4. Establish a benchmark: What do you want to compare results to?

Measurement is a comparative tool, and you always need something to compare your results to. Whether it is your own performance over time or a comparison of your results to a peer company, you must provide a benchmark and a context.

So, for example, suppose you are investing in an empathy training program. Before beginning the program you would conduct a survey to measure empathy levels among your employees’ managers and perhaps customers to establish a benchmark. Then, after the program has run for six months or a year, you would repeat the survey. By comparing the two results you can determine the impact of the program.

Step 5. Select a measurement tool.

Before you begin to define the appropriate tool(s) to collect new data, it is always smart to dig around within your organization to find out what data already exists. Are there customer surveys, employee morale studies, or other research data that can be analyzed for elements of empathy? Is there a social listening tool in place that could be used to listen for references to empathy and your brand? Consider places like Glassdoor and customer review sites where people are likely to vent if they feel they aren’t being heard.

Best practice dictates that you will usually need to devise a combination of different measurement techniques appropriate for your company or client. If you are starting from scratch, there are statements from the Grunig Relationship Instrument that can be used selectively or adapted to your organizational language to measure empathy. Here are a few to get you started:

  • This organization treats people like me fairly and justly. (Agreement with this statement indicates ethical behavior.)
  • Whenever this organization makes an important decision, I know it will be concerned about people like me. (Agreement with this statement indicates collaborative behavior.)
  • I believe that this organization takes the opinions of people like me into account when making decisions. (Depending on the degree to which your business is regulated, you may want to modify this to “opinions of constituents.”) (Agreement with this statement indicates collaborative behavior.)
  • This organization does not mislead people like me. (Agreement with this statement indicates authentic behavior.)
  • I am very willing to let this organization make decisions for people like me. (Agreement with this statement indicates trustworthy behavior.)
  • I think it is important to watch this organization closely so that it does not take advantage of people like me. (Agreement with this statement indicates trustworthy behavior.)

Respondents are asked if they agree or disagree, typically using a 1-to-5 or 1-to-7 scale.

Feel free to add questions that address your specific empathy-building programs, but be sure to test your questions first. Better yet, call your favorite market research expert or a local university to vet your questions or survey and make sure you will get the answers you need.

New technology platforms have reduced the cost and complexity of trust surveys considerably. Survata, for example, charges by the completed survey. So you can survey 500 people using five or six of the above statements for $500.

Step 6. Analyze results.

The most important part of the measurement process is to analyze the data and learn from it. What are the actionable points, how can you change and improve? What should you react to? What should you ignore? What needs to be done today?

It is important to measure failure first. Identify the least empathic teams/managers or groups. That’s where you want to prioritize your training.

Next, analyze the specific characteristics of empathy that you’ve decided are most appropriate for your organization. They might include:

  • Empowers others
  • Ethical
  • Collaboration
  • Authentic
  • Diverse
  • Good benefits
  • Sustainable
  • Flexibility
  • Trustworthy

Determine which of these characteristics your organization is weakest in. If you used the Grunig statements in Step 5, review your scores on authenticity, ethics, collaboration, etc.,and see where you need to beef up your organization’s skills.

Ultimately you want to make sure that your data is actionable, so look at high scoring teams or individuals and see if their habits can be copied or taught. Look at low scores and figure out what it might take to fix them. ∞

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