Blockbuster Empathy

Blockbuster Empathy

Blockbuster Empathy


Describing empathy as an essential, foundational element upon which any business or organization should be built might be met with skepticism. I assure you, it is a fundamental building block for sustainable success for any company, big or small.

“Enlightened companies are increasingly aware that delivering empathy for their customers, employees, and the public is a powerful tool for improving profits, but attempts to implement empathy programs are frequently hamstrung by the common misconception of it as ‘wishy-washy,’ ‘touchy-feely,’ and ‘overtly feminine.’” Belinda Parmar writes in the Harvard Business Review, “There is nothing soft about it. It is a hard skill that should be required from the board-room to the shop floor.”

Studies tell us that people who feel connected lead happier lives. That’s what I have come to know from my own experiences. Years of bulldozing people, micromanaging, judging, being insensitive, and pushy didn’t only undermine my relationships and business, it diminished my own sense of worth, reinforcing that all-too-familiar “imposter syndrome” that creeps up whether I’m giving a TEDx talk or a private consultation with a client who’s trusting me to deliver something tangible to help them.

When I was impacted by personal tragedy, the trauma was overwhelming. My fight-or-flight mode kicked in and “flight’ wasn’t an option this time. So I was forced into taking action that was deeply uncomfortable for me. I had to ask everyone in my life, including clients, collaborators, people on my team, everyone in my tribe, for patience, kindness, love, understanding. I had to ask everyone to gift me with empathy I may not have earned.

The response was overwhelming. It still is. People rose to the occasion in ways I never would have expected. They stepped in when I had to step out. They held things in place when the ground underneath me crumbled.

I speak often about empathy as a subset of emotional intelligence in the workplace. I believe what I teach, and I don’t always implement it in my own life to the degree I know I need to. Only when left with no options, under the crushing weight of grief, did I allow empathy to lead the way… and it informed my thinking moving forward.

In a piece for the Harvard Business Review James Allworth writes “These probably aren’t words that you were expecting to see in the same sentence — Harvard Business School and empathy. But as I reflect back on my time as a student there, I’ve begun to realize that more than anything else, this is one of the most valuable things that the school teaches.”

He goes on to illustrate how important empathy can be in the corporate world by using the case study of Blockbuster, specifically in its handling the competition from upstart movie rental company Netflix. In short, Netflix presented an obvious challenge to Blockbuster and all evidence was there for Blockbuster to act, as the market leader, ensuring they could retain their place as the dominant brand in bringing movies into the homes of consumers. What they chose to do instead was nothing, absolutely nothing.

Allsworth goes on to point out how the lack of empathy played a pivotal role in the decisions made in the early 2000s for the once-dominant company. Today there is exactly one remaining Blockbuster store in the entire world, in Bend, Oregon. That was a multi-billion dollar (costly!) lack of empathy.

I no longer make billion-dollar mistakes (knock on wood). I have built around me a team of people who empathize with me and with each other. I return the favor and have seen how empowering it is on both sides of the professional relationship. We all have blind spots due to confirmation biases, and tuning-up your empathy means your blindspots are more likely to capture your attention and prevent Blockbuster-sized disasters from derailing you and your company.


Watch my commencement address for Nevada State College about empathy here

Empathy: The Most Valuable Thing They Teach at HBS” by James Allworth

Corporate Empathy Is Not An Oxymoron” by Belinda Parmar