Englander: Organizational Phenomenology at Volvo

Jun 6th, 2012 | By | Category: Human Science

Empathy “is taken to disclose rather than establish intersubjectivity” (Zahavi, 2001, p. 154).

2012 marks the 10th year of my phenomenologically-based empathy training (Englander, submitted) and what better way to spend an anniversary than bringing a practical application of descriptive phenomenological psychology to the corporate world.

In 2012 I was asked to pilot my empathy training with a select group of senior Volvo executives from across Europe. The purpose of the program was to deepen executives’ ability to empathically understand others during a time of major organizational change. Throughout the years I had delivered the training to participants engaged in health care and social work, but I hadn’t imagined applying it in the context of a multinational corporation. In other words, I was about to navigate on strange waters.

In dialogue with Volvo I changed the program’s name from “Empathy Training” to “Phenomenology Training”, in order to make sure that participants didn’t incorrectly assume they had been selected based on a perceived lack of empathic abilities! In fact, this was actually a better title for the training, since phenomenologically, empathy is an experience that you open up for and not something that you do or something that you are. For example, we often refer to people having an empathic personality or that one is doing empathy, and we stop there, as if we have found an explanation for the phenomenon. As a phenomenologist I am more interested in describing empathy and thus trying to understand the phenomenon.

In approaching empathy from a phenomenological perspective, I can access the complex structure of empathy and then be able to design a training situation based upon that description. However, these are difficult distinctions and I have (and I still do) referred to the training as empathy training, mostly because in my daily work in the university setting, students need and also ask for empathy training in order to prepare for health care related professions. I recognized that in the corporate context, the meaning of the learning task was different. One could say that at the university, empathy is a highly valued term whereas phenomenology does not always come with good connotations—students sometimes imagine that phenomenology is something esoteric or mystical! In contrast, in the corporate world, phenomenology seemed like a new and exciting term—so surprisingly, in this new context, “phenomenology” actually has cachet! I guess it is never too late to become surprised.

Our phenomenology training was to be held at Volvo in Gothenburg, Sweden. The pilot was structured with one lecture followed by four training sessions for two groups (6 participants in each group). The training was conducted in English because there were some executives (i.e., participants) that were flown in from France. The overall goal of the training was to introduce the participants to the phenomenological attitude in order to open up for empathy and interpersonal understanding, which in turn, could open up for intersubjectivity. Now, this is a challenging task at the university where I work: students are required to read difficult phenomenological articles that we painstakingly work through together during the course of the semester.

Here I was, at the doorstep of a major corporation knowing ahead of time that I could probably not make anybody read heavy philosophy. They listened to my lecture and they received a copy of my PowerPoint presentation–basically the same presentation that I use at the university (although I had tried to come up with examples that fit the new context that I was in). In many ways it was liberating to leave all the nuanced academic arguments behind, because the only thing that interested these people was the immediate usefulness of the training. To an academic the immediacy of this expectation comes across as an in-your-face challenge.

Standing in front of these senior executives I realized that I stood face to face with extremely busy and intelligent people. I am used to busy and intelligent people, because this is what my world at the university looks like, however, there was a difference in terms of not wasting time on side-issues. Their background was mostly within the field of business and technology. This was a new and challenging context for me; however, in a way, I knew that I was to tell them something that they probably had never heard before and my 12 years in the United States had prepared me for the pragmatic attitude that was required. And I was surprised, their attitude came in handy in terms of them adapting quickly to the content in the lecture. While some people contributed with personal examples, others applied what they had learned, seeking to quickly show that they had understood what I had said. Obviously, time was experienced as a resource in this context. Questions about the scientific status of phenomenological psychology, that I was used to at the university context, were completely left out.

For this audience the only thing that mattered was whether the content that I presented had practical applications in terms of dealing with the problems at hand. Their positive response suggested to me that my presentation and materials enabled them to arrive at new insights about challenges in the business. I attempted to make the invisible in their work situations visible, especially in terms of interpersonal understanding and interpersonal relations. After the lecture, I was surprised by the overwhelming positive response. I got comments, like “You rocked my world today” to “When you said that, it was as if lightning had struck me.” Who knew? Phenomenological psychology might actually qualify as an essential perspective in an organizational context.

The lecture reviewed basic phenomenological issues such as intentionality, meaning versus fact, understanding versus explanation, trust versus skepticism, behavior versus expression, as well as the theory of mind debate and social cognition in terms of how we know others and the phenomenology of empathy and intersubjectivity. In particular, I made an attempt to show that by adopting the phenomenological attitude, it is possible to better grasp the meaningful expressions of others and thus be more available for experiences of genuine empathy. And of course, I describe the purpose, goals, specific steps, and developmental learning stages of the empathy training and provide some concrete examples at the end.

One particular theoretical insight that struck me during this first program was that the notion of intersubjectivity can operate in a very interesting way in different contexts. Following Zahavi’s (2001, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2011, 2012) research on Scheler, Husserl, and Stein in terms of empathy and its ability as a phenomenon to open people to a deeper lived-sense of intersubjectivity, it dawned on me how such a foundation also could be applied in an organizational context. Just as the phenomenologists suggest, when empathy occurs, a more conscious experience of intersubjectivity follows (Zahavi, 2001). For example, in a situation in which two people are talking and one is trying to understand the other, what happens is that, when empathy occurs, one more fully recognizes the other’s experience of the lived-world and gains a greater felt-sense of the other—and in this process a shared world is possible.

In other words, all of a sudden it is clear that you are “in the same boat” (as the saying goes) or, as in this particular context, in the same team, company, or organization, while at the same time clearly seeing the distinction between your own self and the other. In using the phenomenological attitude, presence is primarily directed towards the meaningful expression of the other, making it possible for empathy to occur. Husserl describes empathy as an analogical apperception, which is the fact that you are present to another consciousness (hence the term analogy) and not to a thing (Zahavi, 2012). Empathy is thus marked with a co-presence in which one side can never be revealed, i.e., the other’s primary experience (Zahavi, 2012). Hence, phenomenological empathy training in organizations can contribute to a context in which individual as well as the cooperative meanings become much more clear.

As part of my phenomenological empathy training, participants recorded and transcribed a 3-5 minute conversation with somebody (in this case a co-worker) in which they tried to be empathic towards an everyday work problem described by the other person. In all my trainings I use everyday problems in order to shift participants’ focus from specific technical workplace issues to focus instead on the meaning expression of the other. However, at Volvo I added that the everyday problem had to be in relation to what was going on in terms of Volvo’s organizational changes, since this was the context Volvo was most interested in better understanding. Whereas in my past trainings it has sometimes been difficult to help participants shift their attention from narrow technical issues to broader, more widely meaningful, in this case guiding the participants to focus on issues related to “organizational change” yielded descriptively rich results.

Consistent with my prior phenomenological empathy trainings, I told the participants to use their own interpretation of empathy in order for the first session to work as a contrast between their own understanding and what I was presenting. Hence the first session is always meant as a confrontation with one’s previously-held views and interpretation of empathy. The most common misunderstanding (that we find also find in modern psychology) is that empathy means to take the perspective of the other by applying projection, simulation, or imagination, resulting in a primary focus on one’s self, and theoretically speaking, only making it possible to know oneself better in a hypothetical situation (Gallagher & Zahavi, 2008). Nevertheless, already at the second session, the participants were starting to get a more authentic lived-sense of empathy, applying the phenomenological attitude in conversations, and thus directing their primary attention towards the other’s meaning expression. This is unusual as the last phase of learning how to adopt the phenomenological attitude is usually reserved to the third session. I would say this was a motivated group of reflective people that did not waste any time. They were also eager to see what this type of encountering with others might lead.

The new specification in terms of the task—that is asking the participants to try to understand somebody’s everyday problem in regard to organizational change—also allowed for the content about the problems as experienced by members of the organization to serve as a springboard for an organizational intervention. In fact eliciting meaningful descriptions within the training dialogues is an organizational intervention in itself, precisely because it enables the participants to make visible the essential problems they are experiencing in an organization undergoing major changes. After the training, some of the participants had gone back to the people they initially had talked to and recorded for the purpose of the training and addressed their own previous misunderstandings. The participants who “got it” (i.e., were able to adopt the phenomenological attitude in their effort to understand the person with whom they were dialoging) grasped the process quickly, within the first two sessions. They were able to insightfully debrief these dialogues with depth with the larger group early on during the 4-day training. These shifts to more fully empathizing with the other’s experience were recognized as a discovery by the participants themselves and were appreciated by the larger group.

Hence two issues stood out at the conclusion of the pilot training program at Volvo which bear an a broader consideration of the applications of phenomenological work in organizations: the first related to Husserl’s notion of empathy and intersubjectivity, the second, becoming the start towards an intervention, as I had asked them to chose a lived-problem related specifically to their own organizational change. In reflecting about after these six days at Volvo, what I see is that there were no significant differences or added difficulties involved in implementing phenomenological inquiry in a corporate context compared to contexts I’ve previously worked in such as health care, social work, and psychology. In other words, Husserl still has something to teach us in terms of empathy and interpersonal understanding, no matter what roles we play in society.


Englander, M. (submitted). Empathy training from a phenomenological perspective.  Journal of Phenomenological Psychology.

Gallagher, S. & Zahavi, D. (2008). The phenomenological mind: An introduction to philosophy of mind and cognitive science. London, England: Routledge.

Zahavi, D. (2001). Beyond empathy: phenomenological approaches to intersubjectivity.  Journal of Consciousness Studies 8/5-7, 151-167.

Zahavi, D. (2007). Expression and empathy. In D. Hutto & M. Ratcliffe (Eds.) Folk Psychology Reassessed, pp. 25-40. Springer.

Zahavi, D. (2008). Simulation, projection, and empathy. Consciousness and Cognition, 17, 514-522.

Zahavi, D. (2010). Empathy, embodiment and interpersonal understanding: From Lipps to Schutz. Inquiry, 53/3, 285-306.

Zahavi, D. (2011). Empathy and direct social perception. Review of Philosophy and    Psychology, 2/3, 541-558.

Zahavi, D. (2012). Empathy and mirroring: Husserl and Gallese. In R. Breeur & U. Melle (Eds.), Life, Subjectivity & Art: Essays in honor of Rudolf Bernet, pp. 217-254. Dordrecht: Springer.

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3 Comments to “Englander: Organizational Phenomenology at Volvo”

  1. Mattias Andersson says:

    I took part in one of the groups not as an excectutive but as change leader and initiator of the pilot at Volvo. Honestly, I had some doubts before the trainings whether phenomenology would land well in a large business as Volvo. “Soft issues” as we like to call them, are not always prioritized and the methods to deal with them are often dismissed as something “fuzzy” and time consuming. Having said that the awareness about their importance for successful change is gradually increasing within my organization. Already after the second session I became convinced that this would not only support us in the transition which Volvo is undertaking. I also strongly believe that phenomenology training should become a natural part of our leadership programs. Inspired to continue to learn more about these attitudes I’m hoping that our management team will see the same opportunities as I do.

    • Marc Applebaum says:

      Mattias, it is good to hear your feedback about Magnus’ phenomenology training at Volvo. As someone who, like Magnus, is both an academic and an organizational consultant, I understand how challenging it can be to address so-called “people issues” or “soft skills” in businesses–even though the daily interactions between people are the foundation for any business’s success! The power of working phenomenologically in organizations is that it brings peoples’ awareness back to the business issues (successes or failures) that they are already living, but in a much more reflective and immediate way that enables them to fully acknowledge what is going on. In my experience, this can free leaders to name and address important issues that previously somehow couldn’t be directly named. Thank you for your comments!

  2. Jani Minler says:

    The pilot you did at Volvo, do you have a concept in terms of slides or similar that I can use to “sell” in my organization? It needs to be presented as a pragramatic expercise rather than a theoretical concept since the latter will be considered as waste of time.