Exploring the conditions under which collective empathy forms, embeds, and sustains in an organization: A grounded theory case study

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Organization Development & Change (D.O.D.C.)


Organization Development

First Advisor

Deborah O'Neil (Committee Chair)

Second Advisor

Margaret Brooks (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

David Jamieson (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

David Saltzman (Committee Member)


This study investigates how collective empathy forms, embeds, and sustains, and thus might be operationalized at Healing Arts for Children], a small arts-focused nonprofit organization serving pediatric patients and their families. The twenty-year-old organization, in partnership with hospitals, facilitates art, music, and other creative expression activities to help reduce anxiety and encourage more positive healthcare experiences for the critically and chronically ill. The predominance of literature on empathy and its development in the workplace focuses on empathy at an individual level (specifically with leaders and staff) and empathic responses or expressions by individuals related to workplace performance. Despite a long history of studying empathy in the workplace, the constructs of individualized empathy are not universally defined and agreed upon, thereby creating significant variability in the possibility of sustainable and practical workplace application. There is little current research on empathy in the workplace that investigates the system-level application of empathy, which may be essential in determining how empathy forms, embeds, and sustains within an organization. Some research on the concept of "collective empathy" of individuals within a system exists, suggesting the possibility of operationalizing the construct. Yet, this literature appears to insufficiently address the collective empathy of a system and its influence on stakeholders and constituents, even though it suggests the possibility that collective empathy might have the power to improve culture and performance. The findings from this study build on and add to the limited empirical research on collective empathy by identifying likely conditions for how such empathy forms, embeds, and sustains within an organization. This study contributes to existing research by supporting how collective empathy forms and adds to that research by offering a perspective on the role of culture in its formation. The study further extends existing research by providing a theoretical model for how collective empathy may embed and sustain within an organization.