Behavioral Science

It’s The Empathy, Stupid! – Why Entrepreneurs Can Be Jerks

by . August 14th, 2013

…And Why Reading This Can (Literally) Make You a Better Person.

Amygdala by Jean Decety

Mirror neurons lighting up in the amygdala in an empathetic response

Are you an empathetic manager? Chances are you aren’t.  A new study suggests that the more power someone feels, the less they are able to empathize. This brings a whole bunch of serious implications not just for managers, but for entire economic systems as well.

The spotlight has shone brighter on the idea of empathy in recent years. The depersonalization of relationships through the widespread use (and misuse) of social media tools, and recent political developments have all done their share to make empathy a more discussed concept than it ever was.

A quick look at Google Scholar shows that there have been 153,200 results for studies mentioning empathy from the year 1900 -2008. However, from 2009-2013, there have been 42,900 mentions of the word in scholarly works. There have been a third as many mentions of empathy in studies in the past four years than there have been in the previous 90.

Google NGram - Empathy

Mentions of “Empathy” in English literature from 1900-2008

Even accounting for the fact fewer older studies are included in Google Scholar, Google’s Ngram viewer clearly shows that there has been a steady rise in the use of the word empathy across the general body of English literature in the past 9 decades. I’d bet that if data from 2009 through the present were to become available, we’d see a sharp spike in usage as well.

What is Empathy, Really?

First, an obligatory explanation of the differences between “empathy” and its more popular cousin “sympathy”. Empathy is understanding how someone feels. Sympathy on the other hand, is feeling the way another person feels. For most purposes, empathy is a far more useful idea for a manager and entrepreneur.

Capuchin Monkeys Sharing by Frans de Waal

The roots of empathy are complex and the implications difficult to contain in one short post, but to grossly oversimplify things, empathy is a core function of our biology, more specifically of mirror neurons in our brains.

These neurons fire when we observe other people (and animals!) do things. These fire up in response, not to movement as you would expect, but goals.

The discovery of mirror neurons in simian and human brains in the 90s has helped tremendously in our understanding of empathy, and why certain people may exhibit more signs of it than others.

Understanding other people’s motivations is crucial not just for leadership, but also for understanding what your market wants.

Why Empathize?

The Encounter by Gordon Browne (1858-1932)

The reason you need empathy is because as entrepreneurs and managers, you will be dealing with people much more than you might realize. People are guided by their own unique motivations – and rarely by logic.

We might try to use some elements of logic to justify our motivations, but it’s rarely the same thing. Not everyone values the same things, nor has the same access to information as everyone else does. Not everyone is able to process information the same way.

If that logic and motivation were closely tied in reality, then you wouldn’t see so many people do things that aren’t in their best interests. Like vote the wrong person in office for example. By and large, your environment, genetics and brain chemistry will have a much larger pull on your motivations than pure logic.

Newspaper hat by  Kate Ter Haar

Here’s an exercise in understanding empathy and motivation. Let’s take a look at the media. How often have you heard the phrases “random act of violence” or “senseless violence” in reference to a tragedy? The truth is, those phrases are total B.S.

The ones perpetrating those acts always had (or still have) a rationale that made those things make sense to them. They aren’t ever random. Otherwise they wouldn’t have thought to do them in the first place. Just because we don’t understand someone’s (possibly lousy) reasoning, it doesn’t mean the action had no sense.

We often forget that other people have their own perspectives, just as we have ours. In business fortunately, a lack of empathy will not necessarily lead to a serial killer being able to strike again. However, it could lead to abysmal employee performance and retention, misguided marketing efforts, and possibly the end of your business. And people might think you’re a jerk.

Why You May Be a Jerk

Let’s recap: The more powerful someone feels – the less they are able to empathize. So the more you feel you can change things, the less you’re able to get other people to help – because they either don’t trust you or think you don’t care about what they feel.

Let that sink in for a few moments.

If you believe in the study’s results, then so many things fall into place. Why nice people who become suddenly rich or famous turn rotten, for example. Or why women might be perceived as the more empathetic sex,  perhaps because women historically, have had less social power than men.

The relatively high prevalence of psychopaths in business is another thing – they may not have started as such at all. In oppressive regimes that get overthrown, the formerly oppressed who come to power can often be worse than the ones they replace, even when they have firsthand experience of the things they’re inflicting.

Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova by Roberto Masotti

Empathy plays a crucial role in collaborations across all fields

And this is likely part of the reason why even people who’ve worked their way to the top are not able to understand the perspective of people they left at the bottom. You would expect someone who’s never experienced other things to be clueless about them, but not people who’ve worked their way up.

That’s not to say it doesn’t pay off to be a jerk every once in a while. Which is rarely. Empathy helps tame the jerk in you, so that it can be released in controlled doses – instead of having free reign over your decisions like it probably did before you read this.

How Will This Make Me A Better Leader?

If you’ve read this far, you’re most of the way there. Knowing this can happen can help you stay grounded. You can actively use your brain’s mirror neurons – where our ability to empathize is seated, to make more ourselves more understanding of other people’s motivations. If they’re honed the right way, you can even use your empathy to do a bit of social engineering – which can be an invaluable tool for both business and leadership.


 Empathy is extremely important for effective communication

Robin Dreeke , a 15-year FBI veteran and lead trainer for social engineering and interpersonal skills at the Bureau explains in his book “It’s Not All About ‘Me,’” that a good social engineer will have these traits:

  • Can Suspend their Ego 
  • Non-threatening
  • Listens Well, Remains Flexible

You will notice that you don’t have to be superhuman to possess any of these traits. They aren’t anything anyone but the most unaware of us need a coach for. A little effort is all that’s needed to empathize and be an effective social engineer.

From 30 Rock, NBC

Don’t take it too far  

Dreeke mentions that ego-suspension is the most difficult part of the social engineering trifecta, and for this he recommends that you focus on techniques and methodologies that focus on the other person’s own motivations. He recommends follow-up questions to help play up to our inherent need to be authorities on a subject. This can be extremely useful for almost every personal interaction you will make as a manager or entrepreneur.’s Anita Bruzzese held a fascinating interview with Robin Dreeke on the practical application of his social engineering techniques on leadership, and his take on asking follow-up questions was very telling:

“If leaders don’t listen to employees’ ideas and ask follow-up questions, it may fall flat and come across as contrived. I think it is always best to explore why people think the way they do. The key is to do so in an encouraging and non-judgmental manner. Team members generally understand they are not the final authority on what is done or not done… 

…People crave to be listened to because it tells them they are accepted and part of the group or team. As human beings, we seek social acceptance and belonging in every aspect of our lives. Some of us this more than others, but it is a core function of our genetics. When a leader can use this knowledge and skill with [their] team, then trust and productivity will definitely increase.”

You Have a Choice

Now you know the loss of empathy can easily happen to you, and make you a less effective entrepreneur. You now you can choose to be jerk. Or not.

By learning to empathize, you might just avoid one of the largest pitfalls of having power – and gain what may be one of your greatest strengths in the process.

So UCreative readers — if your graphic designer is afraid to tell you there’s a problem with your design “suggestions”… well, you can figure it out.

Additional Reading and Sources

Psychopathic Criminals Have Empathy Switch – BBC

The Disturbing Link Between Psychopathy and Leadership – Forbes

Secrets of Establishing Rapport – An Interview with FBI Veteran Robin Dreeke – Intuit

A Sense of Power Can Do a Number On Your Brain – NPR

Humans Have Greater Empathy For Battered Dogs than Battered Adults – Science World Report

What’s So Special About Mirror Neurons? – Scientific American

Are You Unconsciously Empathetic? –

Power Changes How the Brain Responds to Others; Jeremy Hogeveen & Sukhvinder S. Obhi, Wilfrid Laurier University & Michael Inzlicht, University of Toronto, © 2013 American Psychological Association 2013, Vol. 142, No. 3, 000 0096-3445/13 DOI: 10.1037/a0033477

Image Credits

Steve Buscemi; 30 Rock, Season 6, NBC Universal

The following pictures were taken from Wikimedia Commons:

Neuron by Fanny Castets

Capuchin Monkeys Sharing by Frans de Waal

Amygdala by Jean Decety

Talking to village elders, Zabul, Afghanistan, United States Army

Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova by Roberto Masotti

Newspaper hat by Kate Ter Haar

Public Domain:

The Encounter by Gordon Browne (1858-1932)


Arthur Piccio manages YouTheEntrepreneur and has managed content for major players in the online printing industry. He was previously BizSugar's contributor of the week. His work has appeared multiple times on The New York Times' You're the Boss Small Business Blog. He enjoys guitar maintenance and reading up on history and psychology in his spare time.