Cydney Roach, Global Chair of Employee Experience has written previously about the importance of empathy as a leadership quality. Today, she sits down (virtually) with Jamil Zaki, professor of psychology at Stanford University and director at Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory for a deeper-dive conversation on the subject.

Cydney Roach: We know from Edelman Trust Barometer research that ethics (purpose, integrity, dependability) are drivers of organizational trust. What is the relationship between empathy, purpose and trust?

Jamil Zaki: Empathy and trust are intimately linked features of human connection. When people feel their workplace is transactional, zero-sum and competitive, they lose trust in the organization, grow cynical about their colleagues, and act less cooperatively themselves. By contrast, when individuals feel supported and understood, they see workplaces as cooperative. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as people then behave more cooperatively as well.

Empathy is a catalyst to go from the first of these states to the second. When leaders acknowledge, ask about and validate their colleagues’ emotions (in sum, when they show empathy), they build a culture of mutual understanding and foster trust and purpose among their teams. This likely explains, in part, why Businessolver’s annual study cites 90 percent of employees say they’d be more loyal to a company they perceive to be empathetic, and more than 80 percent say they’d work longer hours for an empathetic company. In the recent arms race for talent, companies in my area were building nap pods and snack bars. But maybe the greatest competitive advantage we have is right under our noses: helping employees to feel heard and seen.

CR: In a time when there is no business as usual, how can empathy stabilize and act as a certainty anchor for a workplace experiencing rolling disruptions from week to week?

JZ: Stress is like a social magnet. During hard times, people feel a deep urge to share their experiences with others, and to help. These are wise impulses. In the presence of caring individuals, people experience difficult times as less threatening and are able to bounce back more quickly from them. Likewise, doing for others increases happiness and decreases people’s tendency to feel overwhelmed. Leaders should be mindful of this. As you state, there is no business as usual, and trying to pretend things are normal would be an unforced error. We are all going through a lot, and in this new normal we must acknowledge this—in ourselves and each other. We’re going through something difficult together, but the more we feel together the less difficult it becomes. If leaders can highlight a sense of togetherness at this moment, they can build connections that last much longer than this crisis.

CR: You’ve said that empathy is a muscle that can be exercised and built, an organizational skill that can be learned and embedded in ways of working. Can you break that down and make that tangible?

JZ: I often hear people tell me that they know empathy would help them be better leaders, but they’re “just not good at it.” The science suggests that is not a good excuse. Like so many parts of who we are, empathy is partially genetic, but it is also shaped by our experiences. Some will allow empathy to atrophy like a muscle that’s not used. Others cause it to grow. Crucially, that means that through the right choices and habits, we can build our capacity to connect with others. Call it going to the “empathy gym.”

There are all sorts of ways to work on our empathy, from meditation practices, to reading fiction, to cultivating diverse groups of friends. These are the focus of my book, The War for Kindness. I also teach a class at Stanford called Becoming Kinder that focuses on these techniques, through a set of “kindness challenges.” Readers can try them out at

Jamil Zaki is a professor of psychology at Stanford University, director at Stanford Social Neuroscience Laboratory and author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.

Cydney Roach is Global Chair of Edelman Employee Experience.

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