Practice Empathy to Drive Innovation | Fierce

practicing empathy at work

Empathy drives out-of-the-box thinking, which leads to better results

Derrick Mains created a management operating system called AMP Business Systems. He believed he was a highly effective manager because of his lack of empathy. It gave him focus and clear decision-making, so he thought. Yet his lack of empathy almost cost him one of his best employees.

Mains had a superstar employee who was a role model for the rest of the team. Suddenly the star started missing targets. Mains made the decision to terminate.

Thankfully something prodded Mains to investigate further. Upon speaking with the employee, he discovered some deep personal problems that had caused the decline in performance. Mains realized his lack of empathy almost lost his best employee.

Reflecting on his experience, Mains said, “Here was my best performer, and I am sitting there — paperwork ready — planning to fire him, and I realize my lack of empathy is the real issue,”

A lack of empathy can have devastating results, but empathy in leadership can transform a team and lead to breakthroughs in collaboration and innovation.


How Empathy Drives Innovation

Empathy is our ability to understand and share the feelings of others. When applied to problem-solving, empathy helps you better understand the needs and perspectives of the people involved in the problem, which leads to more effective and sustainable solutions.

One example of a high-performing team that uses empathy to drive results and innovation is Pixar. At Pixar, practicing empathy is a key component of the company culture, and team members are encouraged to put themselves in each other’s shoes to understand their perspectives and needs better.

This empathetic approach has allowed Pixar to create some of the most successful and innovative animated films of all time, including Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. By taking the time to understand each other’s needs and perspectives, team members are able to work together more effectively and come up with creative solutions to complex problems.


To achieve innovative empathy, the studio has developed a unique process of empathy that involves several key elements.

  • Research: Pixar’s filmmakers immerse themselves in the world they are trying to create by conducting extensive research. This includes everything from reading books and articles to traveling to different locations to experience the environment firsthand.
  • Observation: After their research, Pixar’s filmmakers observe people and their behavior in different situations. This helps them understand how people react to different stimuli and how they express emotions.
  • Empathy exercises: Pixar’s filmmakers engage in empathy exercises where they put themselves in the shoes of their characters. This helps them understand what the characters are going through and how they might feel in different situations.
  • Character development: Pixar spends a lot of time developing their characters, giving them distinct personalities, motivations, and backstories. This allows the audience to connect with the characters and care about what happens to them.
  • Storytelling: Pixar’s films are known for their compelling storylines and emotional depth. The studio uses storytelling techniques such as plot twists, character arcs, and visual metaphors to create a rich and engaging narrative.

But it’s practicing empathy among their own teams that gave them the skill set to create successful products that are loved throughout the world.


Practice Empathy for Better Collaboration

Here are some steps you can take to apply empathy to problem-solving:

  1. Listen actively: Take the time to listen to the concerns and needs of the people involved in the problem. Avoid interrupting or making assumptions, and ask open-ended questions to encourage them to share their thoughts and feelings.
  2. Put yourself in their shoes: Try to imagine how the situation would feel from their perspective. Consider their emotions, values, and priorities, and how these may influence their behavior or decision-making.
  3. Validate their feelings: Acknowledge the emotions and experiences of the people involved in the problem. Let them know that you understand and respect their point of view, even if you don’t necessarily agree with it.
  4. Collaborate on solutions: Use your understanding of their needs and perspectives to work collaboratively on finding a solution that meets everyone’s needs. Consider different options and weigh the pros and cons together.
  5. Evaluate the impact: After implementing a solution, check in with the people involved to see how it’s working for them. Be open to feedback and willing to make adjustments if necessary.


How Fierce Practices Empathy

At Fierce one of the ways we practice empathy in teams to reach new solutions is the “Beachball Exercise”.

We use the beachball conversation to help illustrate collaboration and empathy in decision-making. When you visualize a beach ball you notice it is made up of various colored sections. Each section on its own is ineffective and must be linked with the others in order to form a completely functional ball. Each team member functions as a slice of the beach ball and must contribute their perspective on issues in order to gain a complete understanding.  Going through this exercise forces each person to sit in the perspective of others and demonstrates the need and value of collaboration in an organization. 

One of our clients, Presbyterian Senior Living (PSL), saw the benefits of this exercise firsthand. By using the beachball conversation model, they were able to save over $321,000 in revenue. According to Brian Parks, an Executive Director at St. Andrew’s Village and Fierce Facilitator, “they weren’t capturing all the reimbursement they could because the team was not working well together.” However, once they adopted the beach ball mentality, they increased collaboration and saw an increase in revenue.

The beach ball mentality is a powerful tool that can be applied at all levels of an organization. It invites conversation and creates a common understanding around collaboration, which can lead to better problem-solving efforts, increased financial gain, and ultimately, a stronger organization.



Empathy is a crucial element in effective problem-solving and collaboration. In a world that often prioritizes efficiency over empathy, it’s important to remember that practicing empathy can lead to breakthroughs. Whether it’s Pixar’s empathetic approach to filmmaking or the Beachball Exercise for team collaboration, incorporating empathy into problem-solving and decision-making processes can lead to truly transformative results.

To build high-performing teams strive to practice empathy and watch as it opens up new doors for creativity, connection, and success.

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