Cognitive Empathy: The Secret Weapon for Business Success

Posted on December 3, 2023 | Updated on December 3, 2023

The corporate world has gone through widespread transitions throughout the last few years. The changes have been a particularly challenging adjustment for employees. Yet, leadership can demonstrate cognitive empathy in a direct declaration of compassion.

Adopting empathy in business is beneficial for companies. Perhaps most importantly, cognitive empathy fosters a more cohesive and harder-working team. Here is an overview of what cognitive empathy is, how to learn it, and various workplace scenarios it may appear.

The 3 Types of Empathy

A 2007 study found only 1–2% of the population are true empaths. While some people perceive empathy as a weakness, empathetic leadership sees returns on productivity and revenue. 

“Empathy” is more than a singular term, though. There are actually three types of empathy: Cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Here’s a brief overview of each empathic type.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is understanding another person’s feelings and thoughts. When we employ this form of empathy, we boost our communication skills and have an easier time reaching and informing others. 


However, whereas other forms of empathy may take on other people’s emotions, cognitive empathy is compassion and understanding with boundaries.

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy is also called affective empathy — the ability to step into another person’s shoes and feel their feelings with them. You might feel their pain, worry, joy or other emotions. This type of empathy is important for deepening emotional connections.

Compassionate Empathy

Suppose someone on your team flubs a presentation. They might get down on themselves or feel embarrassed and angry. Responding with compassion — as in acknowledging their feelings — shows you care and are willing to help however you can. It is an altruistic desire to act on one’s empathy so others rise above their hurt.

Benefits of an Empathetic Business Model

What do Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, former Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield, and General Motors CEO Mary Barra have in common? They are all renowned, empathetic leaders who have taken their corporations to new heights.

Implementing cognitive empathy into the business model benefits companies in the following ways:

  • Boosts employee engagement, morale, and productivity
  • Fosters deeper relationships between employees, stakeholders, partners, clients, and customers
  • Elevates customer service, satisfaction, and loyalty
  • Improves communication through meaningful interactions
  • Fuels collaboration, idea-sharing, and innovation
  • Gives companies a competitive advantage
  • Ensures greater hiring and retention

Coming out of global pandemic lockdowns, workers want more from their employers. According to HP’s Work Relationship Index, 83% of workers would leave their jobs if it meant they would be happier elsewhere. 

Many prioritize emotional intelligence, flexibility and empathetic leadership, especially during job hunting. Employers would be remiss to overlook the benefits of adopting a compassionate business model, from more generous benefits to wellness programs to advancement opportunities.

Cognitive Empathy in Action: 5 Likely Scenarios

So, what does cognitive empathy look like in action? It actually comes up more often than one would believe. Whether you currently tap into cognitive empathy or want to start, here are five likely scenarios you might find at work.  

Developing Diversity and Inclusion 

When managers decide to revamp the company’s diversity and inclusion, they should ask for input from those most impacted by the decisions. In a blatant display of cognitive empathy, they ask people with disabilities and people of color for their concerns, suggestions, and feedback. They then use the knowledge and insights to create a diversity and inclusion program addressing those concerns. 

Nearly 56% of workers agree that DEI is a good thing — women especially value DEI and take advantage of programs.

Reaching Out When Times Are Rough

Managers can demonstrate cognitive empathy by paying attention to employees’ moods. If someone on the team seems down, an empathetic manager can ask them privately what is wrong. 

Offering to assist and support employees during life’s challenges goes a long way in building trust and respect. Likewise, companies will have an easier time retaining superior talent if they are compassionate and understanding of their workers’ needs. 

Delivering Empathic Customer Service

Believe it or not, empathy is the cornerstone of excellent customer service. Being empathetic toward customers’ concerns and upset allows you to recognize their needs better, resolve conflicts, and foster deeper relationships, satisfaction, and loyalty.

The customer experience is of the utmost importance for business success. One survey found that 86% of customers walk away from a brand after two to three lousy customer service encounters. 

Launching an Empathetic Marketing Campaign

The human touch is not dead in a world with rising artificial intelligence. Like the customer service experience, marketers can deploy cognitive empathy to understand customer problems, make people feel heard, and create effective campaign solutions. The following two campaigns are perfect examples of empathetic marketing.

Dove “Real Beauty” Campaign

Dove launched its “Real Beauty” campaign in 2004 to counter negative body image and self-criticism. The ad has evolved over the years, negating stereotypes and standards the beauty industry sets. 

The campaign displays women of all races, sizes, and imperfections and encourages them to share photos on social media using the hashtag #mydovemessages. Many women have uncovered their inner beauty and confidence through the campaign and by using Dove products.

Heineken “Worlds Apart” Campaign

The 2017 Heineken “Worlds Apart” campaign paired two people with differing views to explore common ground over a beer. Topics ranged from mental health to trans rights to feminism and climate change.

The ad made tremendous waves worldwide, breaking down barriers and animosity between unlike individuals. In 2022, a Standford University study suggested it was the most effective intervention in bringing people together with different political stances.

Softening the Blow of Layoffs

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 17.2 million layoffs in the U.S. in 2022 — most of which were in the technology sector as companies panicked amid inflation. The layoffs left American workers reeling as they scrambled to pay for rent and groceries while searching for new work. 

An empathetic manager is sensitive to their employees, and the impact layoffs have on their lives. In response, they might offer outplacement assistance — resume writing, interview preparation, recommendations, and networking — to land another job quickly.

How to Learn Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy makes you a better leader and co-worker. Despite such few people with a propensity for compassion, you can develop this skill with practice. 

  • Give speakers your full attention by practicing active listening.
  • Ask clarifying questions to make them feel heard.
  • Try stepping into another person’s shoes to understand their perspectives, feelings, and experiences.
  • Help others through volunteer work to meet people from different walks of life.
  • Take a workshop on empathy.
  • Constantly challenge your biases and assumptions.
  • Go out of your way to speak to others different from yourself.
  • Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and tone when interacting with someone.

Cognitive empathy is different than emotional empathy, though. With cognitive empathy, you find ways to understand another’s emotions — even trying to envision being them — without taking on their emotional experiences. This allows you to meet them where they need you to within professional limits.

Cognitive Empathy Is Success Rooted in Compassion

More companies are eager to hire workers with empathetic tendencies. Cognitive empathy helps you meander through social interactions at work and fosters workplace culture and belonging. Adopt cognitive relationships throughout your business, including your marketing and leadership strategies — your business will reap the rewards.


About The Author

Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.

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