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Successful Breakfast Booster event on Empathy in Business

Could empathy be the key for business to unlock competitive advantage, or does it compromise efficiency and performance? This was the central question during UMIO’s Break Booster on Friday 13 December. In this workshop, Dr. Lukas Figge explored the most important questions concerning empathy in an interactive and experiential way.

Empathy has two levels. The first one is about relating to the feelings and emotions that another person is experiencing. The second one, which is often forgotten, is the ability to identify and fulfil another person’s needs and thereby contribute to his or her well-being.

Empathy is a hot topic in business nowadays. Just google it and you will find many articles highlighting the benefits of empathy for innovation, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, organisational learning and financial performance. However, apply it with care. Empathy can also have opposite effects if it comes at the expense of addressing sensitive issues that are crucial to delivering results.

Sketching a theoretical framework

About 30 professionals attended the Breakfast Booster with Lukas Figge at UMIO Café in Maastricht. Lukas is lecturer in Strategy & Entrepreneurship at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics and works as innovator and trainer at UMIO.

After a delicious breakfast, Lukas started by explaining that empathy at best has an instrumental function in Milton Friedman’s liberal worldview: use it when it increases profits. This is in contrast to the stakeholder model, in which empathy itself has more intrinsic value. He then sketched a framework, including the work of Brene Brown on courageous leadership and the work of Marshal Rosenberg on non-violent communication. This immediately made the playing field clear to the participants.

Are we doing the right things?

The basic assumption of the framework is that every person on this planet is experiencing feelings right now. Those feelings are caused by the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of universal and life-enriching needs. As an exercise, participants then had to identify and share their own feelings and needs of the moment.

This was followed by a group assignment. In groups of five, they explored and discussed benefits and downsides of empathy. The term effectiveness came out remarkably often in the results, for most groups as an advantage of empathy and for some groups as a disadvantage. Apparently, empathy has a lot of influence on effectiveness and therefore on the question ‘Are we doing the right things?’.

Unlocking collaborative advantage

At the end of the session, Lukas explained that studies show that empathic care can jeopardise personal gains and benefits in competitive contexts where value capture is more important than value creation. However, it has major benefits for value creation and unlocking the collaborative advantage in organisations through the stimulation of connection, motivation and well-being.

Interesting and educational

This Breakfast Booster turned out to be an interesting and educational workshop with a group of enthusiastic professionals who were really working with each other and with Lukas. Everyone went home (or to work) happy and satisfied, because the workshop met the following needs of the participants: stimulation, collaboration, community, joy, presence, inspiration, discovery and learning.

Breakfast Booster – Unlocking your personal and organisational creative powers

Who hasn’t participated in a brainstorm session that – in the end – was quite disappointing? You wondered if the discussion yielding few new ideas was really worth all that time and energy spent? Does this sound familiar?

PhD Candidate on the Development of Human Capital, Kim van Broekhoven (School of Business and Economics) and Strategic Designer & Innovator, Damien Nunes (UMIO) have comforting news. Van Broekhoven: “You or your team are not to blame. Research has convincingly shown that traditional brainstorming is an inefficient technique. Think about it. How many times did you have to wait for your turn? How often did you feel uncomfortable because it was a crazy idea? How often did you forget about your idea because you had to listen to other people first? What happened when your boss came up with an idea…?”


Kim van Broekhoven: “Research has convincingly shown that traditional brainstorming is an inefficient technique.”

Basic brainstorming rules

Luckily there are many other creative techniques that do unlock your personal and organisational creative powers. Kim van Broekhoven and Damien Nunes enthusiastically present them during the Breakfast Booster on October 31st 2019, at Brightlands Chemelot Campus Sittard-Geleen. Van Broekhoven’s research knowledge and Nunes’ practical knowledge form the ideal combination for this workshop.

After enjoying a healthy breakfast, the workshop leaders kick off with presenting a few basic brainstorm rules: no judgement, quantity over quality, building on each other’s suggestions and combining, changing and reordering of ideas.  

How might we…?

Eight groups are randomly formed and presented with a real-life problem.
Round one consists of clarifying the problem simply by asking the problem owner lots of questions. In the second round the power of the ‘How might we…?’ question is explored. “‘How might we…?’ is about finding possibilities, discovering options and creating a mind-set of exploration”, Nunes states. The third round is a silent brainstorming session in which everybody tries to think of ideas individually. The workshop leaders advise to use personal or professional experiences for inspiration, to think of alternatives for existing ideas, and to take different conditions into account, such as for instance more or less budget.

Eight groups are randomly formed and presented with a real-life problem.

Let’s get out-of-that-box

Van Broekhoven: “Most ideas so far are probably closely linked to the problem statement. But to come up with truly innovative ideas, we have to start thinking out-of-the-box. A technique that helps do that is reverse assumptions. This works as follows. Focus on just one term in your problem statement. If the problem statement is: ‘How to lower administrative tasks for nurses’, you could focus on ‘administrative tasks’. Write down everything that comes to mind and then reverse all assumptions. This helps you to look at the problem from a completely different perspective.” The session ends with idea mapping. All participants quickly share their ideas and map them on a matrix with the axes ‘innovative’ and ‘impact’.  

Participants’ feedback

Some participants’ feedback: “The ‘How might we…?’ question is very powerful. I really love that.” “The silent brainstorming is much more effective than traditional brainstorming.” “Today I met new people that looked at my problem from different perspectives. I was totally surprised by their ideas. I leave here enriched.” “This approach shows that speed and pressure doesn’t mean losing quality, it enhances quality.”  

The Breakfast Booster is an initiative of UMIO, the executive branch of Maastricht University School of Business and Economics. The events focus on sharing content and building a network of professionals and organisations.

Photos: Jonathan Vos