The Importance of Empathy in Executing Successful DEI Strategies

Author(s): Rebecca Hoke

Empathy may lie at the heart of our ability to move the dial when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). In the five-step PRESS model that social psychologist Robert Livingston lays out – problem awareness, root-cause analysis, empathy, strategy, and sacrifice – it lands squarely in the middle (“How to Promote Racial Equity in the Workplace,” Harvard Business Review). Livingston contends empathy is both the most important and most difficult step, as it’s one thing to understand that there is a problem, but another to correct the problem. To bridge the gap from problem identification to action, empathy is necessary (“Robert Livingston,” Armchair Expert). People need to care enough about the problem to invest in the solutions.

But empathy can be difficult to foster, depending on the individual. Research shows us that there are three different social value orientations that people can have in terms of their behaviors and relationships with others and society:

  • A competitor, with a “winner-take-all” viewpoint. These individuals believe they can only win if someone else has lost.
  • An individualist, where the concern is on maximizing one’s self-interest with little regard for others’ outcomes.
  • Prosocial, with a desire for things to be more equitable.

Studies place roughly 10 to 15% of the population as competitive, 25% as individualists, and 60% as prosocial. These numbers show a large minority of people who are pro-self-interest, meaning they either don’t want equity or would support it as long as it benefits them (“Robert Livingston,” Armchair Expert; “Social Value Orientation,” iResearchNet).

Knowing that these different mentalities exist, how can we as HR generate empathy in the members of our workforce, especially if their disposition is such that empathy is a high bar to reach?

The good news is that while people have a general tendency toward a particular social value orientation, they can vary across context and time, and they can be influenced by situational factors (“What Is Your Social Value Orientation?,” Psychology Today). Research by Stanford psychologist Jamil Zaki challenges the permanence of one’s social value orientation by showing that empathy is not a fixed trait. It’s not something people either have or lack. It’s a skill that can be strengthened through effort and is primarily built through making connections with others (“Jamil Zaki,” Armchair Expert). But this takes time and still requires individual motivation.

So, with the desire to make meaningful change now, the question becomes how do we build empathy at a group level?

One way organizations can grow an employee base with a disposition toward empathy is to use the power of social norms for good (The War for Kindness, Zaki).

Aim strategies at the cultural level to change social norms and what is considered acceptable behavior.

  • Make visible and amplify equitable and inclusive behaviors.
  • Recognize and reward kind, empathetic behavior and challenge indifference. McLean & Company’s recognition research shows that recognition is extremely valuable in encouraging and reinforcing individual behaviors.
  • Gain the buy-in and commitment of senior leaders and managers and ensure they model desirable behaviors and attitudes. As we find when working with executives on culture, their ability to demonstrate the culture they want to see across the organization goes a long way toward making cultural changes take hold.
  • Use the power of conformity – when people believe others around them are caring and generous, they are more likely to act in those ways as well (The War for Kindness, Zaki).

However, to combat racism and inequity, cultural strategies are not enough. Individual-level strategies aimed at changing people’s mindsets are still needed.

  • Set strategies that address the “what’s in it for me” mentality.
  • Foster empathy through initiatives that create space for employees to connect with one another on a deeper level, as common humanity and respect can be found when we recognize each other as people with hopes, fears, and experiences that shape who we are (The War for Kindness, Zaki).

Institutional-level strategies that involve changing policies and practices in the organization are, of course, also needed and are often the best starting point. Policies, as sets of rules that must be followed, will by nature influence both individuals and cultural norms (“Robert Livingston,” Armchair Expert). But policy changes are not enough. We must address issues and set strategies at all three levels – institutional, cultural, and individual – to make lasting change in the hearts and minds of employees so that DEI efforts are more than words on paper and extend beyond the walls of the organization (“Robert Livingston,” Armchair Expert).

To learn more about how McLean & Company can partner with you on your DEI journey, please visit our DEI Resource Center or contact Jon Campbell at

By Rebecca Hoke

Related Content