Bringing Water to the Well: Practical Empathy in Corporate Tech

Author: Johannes Traa

Illustrated by Lisa Rockefeller Valentine

January 9, 2024

Table of contents

Note: on the call for hope
Note: on new terminology
Empathy and corporate culture
Organizational and corporate culture
Clashing value systems
A few observations
Humanity-disaffirming practices
Note: on emotions in the workplace
Empathy as a liability
How to deploy empathy effectively
Use it selectively
Limit your expectations
Cultivate safe spaces


Everyone wants to belong. In a professional setting, that means bringing your full self to work and feeling accepted and supported. This is difficult to achieve in practice because of the tension between human needs and business needs, i.e. corporations are profit-maximizing while people are purpose-maximizing. In this article, I examine the role of empathy in corporate tech and discuss strategies for deploying it for positive impact while avoiding burnout.

Note: on the call for hope

While drafting this article, I solicited feedback from friends and colleagues, sparking many fruitful conversations. The topic hits deep and I believe this is because it addresses an important and too often unmet human need.

I've gotten few objections to my description of corporate tech culture and somewhat more interest in solutions to the problems I outline. But what I hear most from readers is a need for hope. As a peer of mine put it, “risk I can deal with, uncertainty makes me anxious, but when I start to lose hope, that's the end...that makes me want to take whatever job comes next."

I have tried my best to instill hope around this challenging topic without betraying you, the reader, with naive commentary. Let's keep exploring this together.

Note: on new terminology

I introduce two new terms in this article: "engineer-politician" and "productive narcissism". They succinctly capture important behaviors observable in corporate tech. I look forward to describing them in more detail in future articles.


I've wanted to talk about empathy in tech for a while now. I am an empathetic person by nature, so I experience it as a valuable skill. Empathy is the raw fuel behind human connection and it facilitates psychological safety, which we now know is the top driver of effective teams (Dumpeti, 2023). It's also an important ingredient of emotional intelligence, which enables effective leadership (Goleman, 2019). So I'm quite passionate about it.

I address in this article the challenge of deploying empathy effectively and sustainably in a culture that in many ways is hostile towards it. I've sprinkled quotes throughout the text from (anonymized) managers in my field illustrating some of the ways in which we stifle empathic connection. Some I heard directly and others were related to me. I hope this discussion deepens our collective understanding of the topic and inspires positive change.

Empathy and corporate culture

First, some useful terminology.

Organizational and corporate culture

Organizational culture is “a pattern or system of beliefs, values, and behavioral norms that come to be taken for granted as basic assumptions” (Schein, 2017, p. 6). These beliefs and norms crystalize into “how we do things around here” when they “have worked well enough to be considered valid” (Schein, 2017, p. 8). Culture is an emergent property of a group that we have no reason to think is optimal in any sense. It is merely what has worked well enough to sustain the group and help it to pursue its goals.

The group’s "taken-for-granted beliefs", or “theories-in-use” (Argyris and Schon, 1996), can differ significantly from its “espoused beliefs”. This is why asking members directly about their culture is often pointless. They will give you outward-facing narratives that have developed over time to benefit the group. Instead, you must experience their day-to-day first-hand, much like Alan Goldman does in his work as a management consultant and organizational therapist (Goldman, 2009).

Corporate culture is the organizational culture of a corporation. This is a special case in that the group’s goal is its bottom line: profit. This business model, especially when implemented at a large scale, tends to bias norms and beliefs in a way that can be problematic for and even hostile to human well-being. This is reflected in a recent HR industry report that suggests "people-centricity" as a progressive business practice for the future of work (Sage People, n.d.).

From a high-level business perspective, employees are seen as “assets”, “human capital”, or “resources”. Hence the need for a “human resources” department that implements “policies and practices required to produce employee competencies and behaviors” that “achieve the company’s strategic goals” (Dessler, 2020, p. 2). HR's charter as a strategic partner of executive management is to get employees to do what's best for the company's bottom line. It comes as no surprise then that a large majority of employees in tech don't trust HR (Clarey, 2018).


Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But it’s not just an action. It's a state of mind and a way of being. Those who have unusually high levels of it often identify as empaths (Orloff, 2017). They can intuitively sense others’ feelings just from walking into a room. In contrast, there are others who have virtually none of it. Narcissists are the most recognizable example of this (Babcock, 2023).

To better understand empathy, let’s contrast it with pity, sympathy, and compassion. I like to think of these as lying on a continuum in this order: pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion. Pity is the most detached, involving little or no emotional connection. Sympathy is more connected, but doesn’t have the “in their shoes” quality to it. You recognize someone is struggling but don’t feel their struggle. Empathy happens when your mirror neurons light up. You see someone stub their toe, and you feel physical pain.

You experience compassion (Neff, 2015) when you recognize the other’s suffering, wish them to be relieved of their suffering, and (often) take action to make it so. In practice, empathy and compassion blend together because it’s difficult to experience compassion without emotional connection. This is why people working in helping professions may experience ”compassion fatigue” in which they become emotionally drained and unable to serve others (Skovholt and Trotter-Mathison, 2011; Klimecki & Singer, 2011). The organizational psychologist Adam Grant wrote an article (Grant, 2024) recently talking about the difference between empathy and compassion in the context of recent violence around the world.

Another way of looking at empathy is as a skill that contributes to emotional intelligence, or EQ (Goleman, 2019). EQ is a multi-faceted concept. For empaths, a high EQ is necessary for effectively managing all of the social-emotional information that they are continuously aware of.

Clashing value systems

Now for the meaty part. Let's examine the disconnect between corporate tech culture and empathic connection.

A few observations

If you were to study this culture like an anthropologist, what would you see? You would see people who are motivated by intellectual and business challenges. Hard-working puzzle-solvers who are capable of impressive feats of engineering. You would also see a power hierarchy in which a select few are given formal power over others in exchange for playing out the function of management. Those who are skilled in the language of the group culture speak and act in a political manner emphasizing exchanges of social currency. “Team players” are those who mold themselves to suit their managers’ personalities and interests.

"Do you know when it’s time to do the right thing and when it’s time to follow orders?"
- general manager, initiating a conversation with an employee

The primary messages that are passed down the management stack are directives. Flowing in the opposite direction are various forms of compliance that validate managers’ authority and soothe their insecurities. A ritual plays out between managers and their subordinates in which the managers espouse narratives meant to suggest that psychological safety exists in the group’s decision-making. “Feel free to raise your concerns with me anytime so that I can address them” is a typical example. The real test of this narrative is assertive expressions of need that contrast with management's interests.

“Why do you care so much?”
- mid-level manager, in response to concerns about the firm’s management practices

You will also notice that some struggle to fit in. They find it hard to agree to the terms of the implicit psychological contract (Rousseau, 1995) that management enforces. One term codifies the transactional nature of their employment: members will give up autonomy in exchange for a paycheck. Another term highlights compliance: members will comply with orders even if they clash with members’ core values. Members are allowed to challenge managements’ ideas but not their decisions. And even that challenge may turn out to be a narrative courtesy that doesn’t apply in practice.

“Now we’re just bitching.”
- executive, in response to employees presenting findings that he dislikes

Humanity-disaffirming practices

In addition to the above, you will notice some troubling power dynamics. The psychologist Robert Cialdini might say that managers act as “compliance professionals” (Cialdini, 2007). They are rewarded for extracting willing compliance from their subordinates through the use of “weapons of influence” while furthering strategic goals set by their superiors. They are also rewarded for confidently espousing narratives that present the group and its leaders favorably to outsiders regardless of underlying realities.

“No news is good news.”
- mid-level manager, on actively soliciting feedback from subordinates

Because of the function of this role, personal qualities like arrogance, low empathy/EQ, and weak interpersonal communication skills are not necessarily gating factors. Effective engineer-politicians may be granted formal power over others with little regard for their understanding of human emotions or others’ relational needs. Productive narcissism is generally rewarded.

“There is no place for anger in the workplace."
“The next time you feel strong emotions, try not to show them as much.”
- new managers, commenting on their direct reports’ emotions

Note: on emotions in the workplace

One of my female colleagues mentioned that these last two quotes are in a sense good advice. Many women engineers have the early-career experience of crying at work (e.g. out of frustration or sadness) expecting to receive empathy and understanding. Instead, they find out that it cost them dearly in terms of status. This phenomenon is even more pronounced for men. For example, the author of these stories cried in the bathroom of a cafe across the street from his office for this very reason.

On this topic, I confidently point out that not being able to feel and express natural human emotions amongst colleagues at times of great distress indicates low psychological safety. Crying is a moment of vulnerability that gives others the opportunity to rally around the distressed team member, building a tremendous amount of trust and belonging in the process. We engineers like efficiency, right? Well, an emotionally intelligent response in these moments is absurdly efficient with respect to emotional processing and bonding.

Asking empathetic questions helps others to understand why the individual is distressed. The reason is often meaningful to the work and relationships of the group. By negatively branding those who express their emotions considerately and genuinely at work, we squander some of the most valuable opportunities for connection. It's that kind of connection that drives teamwork and makes our workplace a humane space.

"Never cry in front of male managers" is good advice in this culture. But that's not because there's something wrong with crying. It's because the management culture is toxic to human well-being. Period.

Empathy as a liability

We can now see how empathy might clash strongly with a corporate tech firm's management culture. Those who seek to advance their careers through people management must typically dismiss their empathetic instincts to (1) further strategic objectives and (2) align better with their managers. If their manager tells them to act in a way that would harm others’ motivation, belonging, trust, etc., it is advantageous to lack empathy in implementing those orders. Otherwise, the employee will be burdened by the weight of their conscience and function inefficiently as a corporate asset.

“That doesn’t count.”
- manager, dismissing his subordinates' leadership experiences to dissuade them from advancing in their careers

But what of emotional intelligence, which very notably includes empathy and social awareness? Research suggests that it is a critical leadership skill (Goleman, 2019). Some even go as far as to claim that EQ is a stronger determinant of leaders’ success than IQ and that the higher you are in an organization, the more important it is.

“You wouldn't hire a liberal arts major to do the plumbing.”
- division head, on engineers driving grassroots culture development initiatives

The problem is that EQ is difficult to cultivate in cultures that prioritize intellectual performance and compliance behaviors. Social-emotional awareness is seen as distracting from sustained analytical work. This puts the culture fundamentally at odds with various aspects of emotional intelligence. EQ deficiency is baked in.

“Stop asking these people questions and focus on your technical work!”
- director, yelling at a subordinate

“We should all feel comfortable yelling at each other and then grabbing a coffee afterwards.”
- (female) senior manager discussing workplace culture at a women's seminar

How to deploy empathy effectively

Given what we've observed, there are two main questions for empathetic employees in tech to answer: (1) "how do I use empathy as a force for good in my workplace?" and (2) "how do I protect my emotional well-being in this climate?"

To start, consider this metaphor. Bringing empathy into a corporate tech environment is like bringing water to a dry well. We are a group of human beings working closely together, so one might assume that psychologically safe connection is a resource we would all gather around. What we often find, however, is that this resource is scarce.

Bringing water to this well is a missionary activity that benefits from a deep understanding of and respect for the dominant culture. What if you, with the best of intentions, wanted to pipe water to an empty well in a village? If you violate an important norm, your attempt to contribute positively could cause more harm than good.

Only when you make yourself a student of this culture can you understand how to deploy humanity-affirming gestures that don’t set off an immune response (Goldman, 2009). There are several ways to do this. Some are pragmatic survival skills while others are more aspirational and subversive.

Use it selectively

Empathy must be deployed strategically and with detachment. Because this culture can be hostile towards it, empathetic managers with the best of intentions can easily become disappointed, burned out, or exiled.

They are well-served to see empathy and social-emotional connection as merely one tool of many. They can detach their empathetic instincts from their core values and develop the ability to choose when to be empathetic and when not to. This is very desirable from a corporate management standpoint: awareness and corresponding action without the burden of conscience.

Empathy then becomes a more operationalized and sterile gesture that better fits the culture. It's something more akin to perspective taking (Galinsky et al, 2008) or what is sometimes refered to as "cognitive empathy" (Yassin, 2023). A good example of this is "empathy for the customer."

Limit your expectations

Given the limited tolerance for empathic connection, it is important to proportionately limit your expectations.

Many managers act as compliance professionals and therefore are not ideal mentors who are interested in their subordinates’ growth for its own sake. Those who are more receptive may want to connect genuinely, but their hands are often forced by corporate incentive structures to behave differently. So keep your expectations low with mentors and managers when it comes to empathy.

Similarly, because EQ too often is not a gating factor for gaining people management responsibility, you might find yourself trying to communicate with a powerful individual who has a disappointingly low EQ. You can't expect them to have an “adult” conversation about emotions, psychology, or well-being. Trying to do so can lead to them becoming defensive without awareness or for reasons they don't understand. It's best to accept that there's an intelligence gap and avoid performing unrecognized emotional labor (Hackman, 2023). Keep things simple with low-EQ managers.

Cultivate safe spaces

Despite the aforementioned challenges, there are many opportunities to connect in a natural way. The key is to find or create spaces where empathy is valued. This is often done in unofficial or subversive ways and is an opportunity to practice culture leadership.

Employee resource groups (ERGs) are a good example of this. They are employee-driven and ideally create safe spaces that are like warm bubbles in a blizzard. When it is psychologically unsafe to address women's concerns, for example, in an office-wide meeting, a dedicated women's group can facilitate community. Read this story for an empowering and subversive example.

There are also opportunities for quietly cultivating smaller warm bubbles on a regular basis. We can build strong, emotionally mature relationships with others who share our need to connect empathically. You may need to go out of your way to signal that you are willing and able to connect in this way. The right people will pick up on this message and reach out when the time is right.

One coworker may be a safe person to appeal to in times of emotional need. You can also be that person for others who you notice are in need. These relationships form a distributed, organization-wide network of human connection. Participating in that network heals the organization and is a meaningful contribution.

Unfortunately, the positive impact of this work is undervalued by corporate management because it can't be clearly tied to business outcomes. So don't expect to be recognized for the emotional labor you incur. To avoid burnout, ensure that your motivations for participating are intrinsic and renewable.


At the end of the day, work is work. It’s a transactional arrangement with many unwritten and unspoken agreements about how you are expected to behave. By carefully examining the workplace culture that you are a part of, you can learn how to adapt yourself to an environment whose values may differ meaningfully from yours.

This is challenging for empathetic employees working in a corporate tech environment. We must deploy empathy strategically, with detachment, and with low expectations for managers’ emotional sophistication. To circumvent these limitations, we can build empathy-rich relationships with like-minded colleagues and cultivate micro-cultures that serve as emotional safe havens.

Keep bringing water to the well, friends.


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