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The secret weapon in deconstructing unconscious bias in the workplace

As tech companies struggle to build diversity, they should remember that empathy can be a transformative tool for deconstructing unconscious biases and building understanding between people of different backgrounds.

5 min read



Apple recently released statistics showing that the company has made slight, albeit real, progress towards diversifying its workforce. Intel followed suit. While this level of transparency and progress should certainly be applauded, it mirrors a larger trend within the technology industry: to center the conversation on diversity largely around pipeline rather than inclusion.

To be sure, companies should invest in recruiting and hiring diverse pools of talent — and almost every Silicon Valley company, including Apple and Intel, could be doing a better job at building more diverse teams.

But companies must not stop at simply bringing the right people in the door. To truly reap the benefits of diversity, companies must actively build inclusive cultures where employees from all backgrounds can be successful. Tech companies and social critics alike agree that companies with inclusive cultures are more innovative, more agile and higher-performing.

So, how can companies build inclusive cultures and overcome pervasive unconscious biases? As we’ve developed our women in leadership program, EverwiseWomen, we’ve leaned heavily on a secret weapon: empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy can be a transformative tool for deconstructing unconscious biases and building understanding between people of different backgrounds.

Typically, empathy is defined as “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes”. But this may not actually be the most helpful frame for thinking about empathy, particularly as we use empathy to bridge the biases among people from different backgrounds in the workplace.

The reality is that many individuals have singular experiences in the workplace, and people from underrepresented backgrounds may have particularly challenging experiences that others may not fully be able to understand. We cannot simply ask ourselves how we would act in someone else’s situation because we may not perceive that situation the same way.

Emotions, however, are universal and therefore provide much clearer lens for understanding someone else’s experience. To empathically connect with someone, we must identify how someone feels in a particular situation and use that emotion as an entry point for mutual understanding.

Real empathy is about matching emotion, not situation.

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A powerful tool: Cognitive empathy

There are two kinds of empathy. Contagious empathy is automatic and instinctive. It’s what we feel when we see somebody trip and fall, a child, for example, and you get that feeling in your gut because you just can’t help but feel sad or bad for that person.

Cognitive empathy, in contrast, is manual. We can turn it off. We can turn it on. We can use it as a tool, and through cognitive empathy we can create processes to recreate the contagious empathy that occurs automatically.

The first step to cognitive empathy is self-awareness. Before you connect with somebody else, it’s incredibly important to have a strong awareness of yourself and your own emotions. That way, you can determine which emotions are yours and which emotions are theirs.

The second step is emotional connection. Feeling an emotional connection is the difference between looking at somebody’s situation and saying, “That sucks,” and looking at somebody’s situation and saying, “This sucks, because I feel it, too.”

The third step is to take an action step. The key differentiator between empathy and sympathy is action.

A quick example of that comes from research: Radiologists often work in the dark and diagnose patient scans, but don’t meet the patients they are diagnosing or treating. Scientists decided to investigate what would happen if they facilitated more of a connection between radiologists and their patients. By attaching photos of patients to CT scans they found that radiologists wrote longer, more meticulous notes and said they felt more connected to the patient. They also reported more incidental findings and gave more recommendations. The radiologists had more of a connection with their patients, and it affected the actions they took on behalf of that patient.

Tools for action

To activate empathy in the workplace, there are three steps to empathetic connection: 

  • The first is to identify the other person’s emotion.
  • The second step, once you identify what somebody else is feeling, is to recall a time that you may have felt the same way. That’s what will allow you to experience the emotion yourself.
  • The third is to ask yourself, “If this is what I was feeling, what did I need in that moment? What is it that would have prolonged a positive experience or helped mitigate a negative one?”

Then, let that answer guide your response to the other person: How should you behave? Rather than being guided solely by our unconscious instincts, we can be intentional about how we treat one another, particularly in the workplace. This is an important step to overcoming many of the unconscious biases that hold back members of underrepresented groups.

Real empathy compels action, and connective action is one of the most powerful ways for us to impact change. Empathy isn’t always easy, and requires courage, especially since it often means connecting with people who aren’t like us. But as our experience and third-party research shows, the personal – and business results – are well worth it.


Elizabeth Borges oversees Women’s Leadership at Everwise. She runs EverwiseWomen, a cross-organization leadership experience that connects women leaders with the resources and relationships they need to be successful. EverwiseWomen has cohorts in San Francisco, Seattle and New York City, and will be expanding to Los Angeles and Chicago in fall 2016. Previously, Borges worked as a research and innovation consultant at Seek Co., where she leveraged empathy and human-centered design to help global companies develop new product and commercial innovation. She has also worked at the Stanford Center on Longevity, where she conducted research on how to help companies adapt to the aging workforce. She has a degree in psychology from Princeton University.

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