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Empathy: A Force Multiplier for the New Zealand Army

By I. Brandon


New Zealand Defence Force personnel are frequently lauded for their cultural empathy and understanding when operating in the Pacific. Our whanaungatanga with Pacific peoples supports better relationships, resulting in the NZDF enjoying greater access, partnerships and influence across our region. The same principle applies when working with our ally Australia, and other partners on military operations around the globe. The ability of NZDF personnel to build rapport and integrate within a coalition supports us to generate meaningful impacts, despite our relatively small size.

In spite of these demonstrated benefits, a discussion of empathy and its contribution to military effectiveness often generates a critical, mixed or muted response from Army personnel. For many, the concept of empathy seems irreconcilable with the ultimate purpose of a military force: the controlled application of violence to defeat an opponent and compel desired outcomes. Empathy can be all too easily written off as weakness or ‘softness’, which is surely the antithesis of the toughness and resilience required to overcome a capable and determined adversary.

I intend to argue that the successful infusion of empathy into the culture of Ngāti Tumatauenga will in fact make a positive contribution to sustaining an emotionally mature, adaptive and effective combat force. Developing our understanding and application of empathy across all ranks of the Army will generate a raft of benefits – from supporting retention, diversity and inclusion through to reducing harmful behaviours. It will also support a better understanding of our adversaries, partners and operating environment. All of these things will serve to strengthen and nourish the Moral Component of the New Zealand Army’s fighting power.

This article will clarify what empathy really means, and why it is so important for the New Zealand Army. Some ways in which this quality can be fostered will then be discussed in more detail, with a specific focus on its application within Ngāti Tumatauenga.

What is Empathy?

One definition of empathy is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like in that person’s situation”[i]. Empathy is not the same thing as sympathy, which is an expression of understanding and care for someone else’s suffering. While the ability to express sympathy is also an important competency for a military leader (or any decent human being for that matter), it is possible to be empathetic without being openly sympathetic towards a particular person, issue or cause.

Empathy is a key component of Emotional Intelligence (EQ), which is described as the ability of an individual to introspect and communicate, to read the moods of others, and to relate with patience, charity and imagination to the less edifying moments of those around them.[ii]

The NZDF defines leadership as “influencing, motivating, and enabling others to contribute to the effectiveness and success of the New Zealand Defence Force, in an ethical manner”.[iii] From a leadership perspective, gaining a richer understanding of a team member’s emotional state broadens scope to influence and motivate – thereby supporting task outcomes. The cost of not pursuing this understanding is to fly partially blind, applying leadership approaches which may not be sufficiently tailored to the needs of the individual and situation. Worst-case, this can generate unintended adverse consequences. Most organisations have words they use to describe these types of leaders: ‘tone-deaf’, ‘task-focused’, ‘thoughtless’ and ‘insensitive’ to name a few of the more palatable ones.

Military history abounds with examples of leaders who combined EQ and warfighting prowess to achieve disproportionate or unexpected results on the battlefield. Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger was renowned for his genuine interest and care in those he led. He never lost his desire to connect with his soldiers, even as a Brigade and Division Commander. Yet Kippenberger was also highly technically proficient and retained a razor-sharp focus on defeating the enemy. He made difficult decisions on the battlefield with unwavering determination and with full knowledge of the human consequences.[iv] Kippenberger was almost universally trusted, respected and admired by his troops as a result. He provides one example amongst many of how empathetic leadership and military effectiveness are not mutually exclusive.

Fostering empathy can support a range of benefits for Ngāti Tumatauenga, and some of these will now be examined in more depth.


Empathy, Diversity and Inclusion

 The New Zealand Army is striving to create a more inclusive environment for its personnel. Our vision is to create a force where all personnel can thrive, irrespective of their gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity or religion. All of our people deserve the same opportunities to serve and succeed, and a broader cross-section of thought and experience will undoubtedly strengthen our collective resilience and military effectiveness.

Natural social biases create an obstacle to inclusion. Human beings have evolved over millennia to prioritise tight social groupings, often based on family and tribal networks. These groups have enabled survival in situations where individuals would quickly succumb to starvation, weather conditions or the predation of animals and other humans. Two ways in which this evolutionary behaviour manifests itself today are through in-group bias and xenophobia. In-group bias sees individuals giving preferential treatment to those whom they perceive to be part of the same group. Xenophobia is the fear or dislike of anything perceived to be different or strange. These biases make it extremely difficult for minority groups in any organisation to ‘break in’ and become fully accepted and equal members of the majority group.

Empathy can assist with overcoming these obstacles. People who possess higher levels of empathy are more likely to be capable of countering the human biases that contribute to the exclusion of minority groups. This is because they are better able to discern the genuine perspective and feelings of the minority members – helping to dispel ignorance, fear and distrust. By creating greater understanding between people, we begin to break down barriers. Once people are able to consciously (and subconsciously) adopt the discovery that the outsider is in some way similar to themselves and may have valuable attributes they can bring to the group, they naturally begin to like and include them more. But to achieve this understanding requires an empathetic effort to be made in the first place.

Supporting our personnel to develop greater empathy helps to equip them with the emotional tools to take those important but difficult cognitive steps towards greater diversity and inclusion within the Army.

 Empathy and the Reduction of Harmful Behaviours

 A range of research and literature has identified the links between low levels of empathy, particularly affective empathy[v], and harmful behaviours. Conversely, high levels of empathy have been strongly linked to pro-social behaviours.

Sex offenders are thought to suffer from deficits in their capacity to experience empathy.[vi] Similarly, aggressive offenders have showed reduced empathetic responses to emotional videos of others’ suffering, which correlated with aggression severity.[vii] Even serious internet trolls are thought to suffer from impaired affective empathy combined with other pathological personality traits.[viii]

Low empathy can enable the types of behaviours that result in harm to others – or at least can remove an internal safety mechanism that might prevent these types of behaviours from emerging. Conversely, higher levels of empathy, particularly affective empathy, can act as a mitigating factor for less desirable personality traits.

Within a group context, research also suggests that higher levels of empathy can help to overcome our reflexive instincts to exhibit the bystander effect when witnessing harm being visited on others.[ix] Developing a culture where empathy is encouraged, valued and actively developed may reduce the ability of perpetrators to act without anyone noticing or intervening on behalf of the victim. This can only be a good thing in any New Zealand Army unit, barracks or deployment location.

Empathy as a Retention Tool

Personnel who are departing the Army sometimes refer to a lack of trust in leaders, including a lack of engaged leadership at lower levels, as being key factors in their decision to resign. Internal annual attitude surveys of New Zealand Army personnel continue to highlight that trust in leaders remains a challenge, especially as the Army has grappled with the first and second-order impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perceptions of engaged leadership can be linked directly to empathy. Leaders who can genuinely connect with and understand the personal and professional needs of their subordinates are much better placed to help them feel genuinely valued. Indeed, the Canadian Armed Forces Trust Model adopted by the NZDF explicitly notes that Benevolence (along with Predictability, Integrity and Competence) is a key pillar of building trust between individuals and within teams. Benevolence here is defined as ‘believing that another’s actions are motivated by genuine care and concern.’[x]

Creating an environment where personnel feel valued and supported creates a buffer for when times are bad. Each positive interaction within an Army workplace increases the serviceperson’s emotional bank balance, which can be drawn down on when challenging circumstances emerge or when the needs of the Service must trump the needs of the individual and their whanau. Retention issues inevitably emerge when withdrawals from that account consistently outweigh deposits – creating an overdraft or eventual bankruptcy which can accelerate personnel taking release.

A good case study of the negative consequences of an organisational ‘empathy fail’ on retention can be found in the way that involuntary releases were communicated to impacted NZDF personnel during the Total Defence Workforce process in 2011. During this process, 262 uniformed positions were civilianised and 315 military personnel were selected for involuntary release.[xi] In late June 2011, affected staff received letters of release through their command chain in an interview process. The letters followed a set template, and outlined how the affected serviceperson had been rated during the assessment process along with the reasons for their release. Amongst other ratings, personnel were accorded a commitment to service rating of low, moderate or high. Many affected personnel and their commanders felt that the letters lacked empathy, and in some cases unfairly labelled individuals who had honourably served the NZDF for many years as lacking commitment. According to an NZDF document capturing lessons learned from the appeals process, the “letters, in some cases, were telling good people they were bad.”[xii]

The interesting aspect of this example is not the immediate impact of the personnel who were released, it was the shockwaves within the rest of the NZDF that the Total Defence Workforce approach created. The 2011-2012 NZDF Annual Report noted that in the period following implementation, attrition in NZDF full-time military personnel increased from 10.7% to 21.3%. Only 3.4% of this could be attributed to personnel being involuntarily released, with the remaining 7.2% at least partially attributable to dissatisfaction with the Total Defence Workforce process. The report also noted a decrease in organisational satisfaction. Research conducted by the Auditor-General deduced that staff “saw NZDF leaders as having breached the moral contract because they felt that their loyalty and commitment was not reciprocated. We consider this to be one of the causes of the increase in attrition throughout NZDF’s Regular Force.”[xiii]

With the current retention challenges faced by the Army, there are clear lessons to be learned from the experiences of over a decade ago. When times are tough, empathetic leaders can limit further organisational damage through their personal engagement – or at least, limit further self-harm when it comes to pushing people towards the exit.

Empathy and Understanding

The value of cultural empathy when operating in the Pacific has already been highlighted. But empathy also strengthens broader understanding: of adversaries, partners and the operating environment.

Intelligence analysts have long understood that understanding an enemy requires more than just technical knowledge of their capabilities and doctrine. It requires analysts to have a deeper understanding of the social and cultural context of an adversary, and how these factors will influence their thought processes and decision-making. By seeking to view the battlefield through the same lens as the enemy, analysts are able to make better-informed judgements about their likely behaviours and actions. Doing so requires the analyst to apply empathy to properly consider all factors from the perspective of another.

Chief Varasliu Supapo shakes hands with New Zealand Army personnel at the closing ceremony to Exercise Tropic Major.

Chief Varasliu Supapo shakes hands with New Zealand Army personnel at the closing ceremony to Exercise Tropic Major. Exercise Tropic Major aims to give NZDF personnel practice operating in a joint task force in a tropical environment to provide regional security and humanitarian aid, while providing training to members of the Vanuatu Police Force. The fictitious scenario involves a breakdown of law and order on Epi Island, prompting the Government of Vanuatu to request help to re-establish the rule of law and stability for its citizens.

In the same way, empathy enables us to better understand why our partners behave and operate the way they do. It makes us better team players: more understanding and tolerant of differences, while also guiding us to work more effectively with people who come from a less familiar culture.

Military operations are always conducted against human opponents, within human terrain of ever-increasing complexity. Developing empathy will help Army personnel to enhance their understanding of these human factors, which are so critical to mission success.

The Combined Effects of Empathy

The benefits described illustrate how a strong culture of empathy can assist in improving diversity and inclusion as well as understanding, while also potentially reducing attrition and harmful behaviours. Combined, these effects serve to create a more psychologically safe environment for our personnel – allowing them to achieve their potential and perform at their very best. The result is that Ngāti Tumatauenga will become a more vibrant, resilient and operationally effective organisation.

Establishing Empathy in the Leadership Lexicon

 Having established a case for empathy and its military benefits, attention will now shift to discussing how the New Zealand Army can support its personnel to develop this important competency.

The most important initial step that Ngāti Tumatauenga can take to support the development of empathy is to encourage awareness and understanding of the term, and normalise its use within our professional lexicon. Our current reporting system and competency framework is bereft of references to empathy, despite the strong emphasis placed on trust within our leadership doctrine. Empathy does not feature as a Key Element of Successful Leadership, although reference to trustworthiness is made under the Influence Others competency. The word empathy is mentioned only once in our leadership doctrine, where it is acknowledged as a component of the interpersonal domain. This is an oversight. Empathy should be amplified in doctrine as a key competency for Army leaders (and all personnel), and receive specific attention when assessing an individual’s performance and future leadership potential.

With increased awareness and visibility of empathy in our reporting comes accountability (and development opportunities) for personnel who display weaknesses in this area. The Army could consider a more robust assessment of empathy and other EQ competencies as part of its selection criteria for promotion and key appointments. Consideration of emotional competency in these contexts will be easier if empathy is established within our leadership lexicon and actively reported against.

Our close partners are already taking a more active approach to assessing interpersonal skills and EQ in the wake of a series of ‘toxic leadership’ scandals in recent years. In the British Army, climate surveys (a form of 360 reporting) are used at Battalion and Brigade level – to help commanders understand the challenges within their unit, and also to provide a mechanism for personnel to expose unacceptable leader behaviours. Similarly, detailed panel interviews now form a part of selecting personnel for higher levels of command in the US Army[xiv]. These panels carefully consider EQ attributes alongside technical competencies.

If used with appropriate care and consideration, climate surveys and other 360 reporting methods as well as psychometric testing can support leader self-awareness and can help to form a more complete view of a candidate for specific appointments. The New Zealand Army could consider the careful integration of these tools when selecting for command and key staff roles within the Officer, Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer streams[xv].

 Self-Guided Development

Empathy is a spectrum. Some individuals already have a very well-developed sense of empathy, while others are naturally less empathetic or are perceived as such by others.

In the first case, existing strengths in empathy can be fostered and focused on achieving military outcomes. All is not lost however for those who possess a naturally low level of empathy. It is a skill which can be improved through education and the diligent application of development techniques. Over time, as the brain develops new neural pathways, these techniques can become more ingrained and natural.

Planning is a key tool for leaders who wish to role model benevolence and actively develop their personal empathy. This could be applied to formal interviews, where advance consideration is given to the key messages and body language that needs to be conveyed. But planning can also create opportunities for less scripted conversations, where natural curiosity and active listening can lead to genuine interest and engagement with an individual. For the more introverted or task-focused among us, investing time and effort in ‘small talk’ to generate those informal exploratory conversations can be challenging. Planning opportunities for interaction can assist with overcoming these obstacles.

Nurturing curiosity about people is a great way to challenge the existing assumptions we have about them – building deeper and more meaningful connections in the process. With all the competing priorities and distractions of adult life, it can be difficult to focus our full attention on the individual we are engaging with. A useful habit developed in childhood which can help, is asking these types of questions more often: “why?”, “why not?”, “what if?”. Doing so aids in developing a deeper conversation, helping us to better understand someone’s thoughts and feelings. In this way, curiosity provides a good mechanism for applying empathy to our interpersonal interactions.

It has been suggested that the ability to use self-reflection to pursue mastery is the hallmark of a true professional. This certainly applies to empathy, and the myriad of other interpersonal skills that make a good leader. Setting the time aside, whether on a daily or weekly basis, to reflect on how certain interactions have gone and what could have been done differently to achieve a better outcome will lead to improvement. It is also important to acknowledge those interactions that have gone well, to reinforce the associated positive neural pathways. A simple tool to support this which can be used as an internal mental checklist is the ESP method[xvi]:

  • Effort – what effort did you make today (or this week) to strengthen your position as an engaged, empathetic leader?
  • Success – what was an interaction you had today (or this week) which exemplifies the leader that you want to be all of the time?
  • Progress – how have you made progress today (or this week) to further your skills in empathy and those other interpersonal traits that will make you a great leader?

Self-awareness of our own strengths and weaknesses in empathy and other interpersonal competencies is critical in supporting the effective application of any of these tools. Thankfully, the NZDF has a very well-established system for supporting self-awareness through the Leadership Development Framework. Tools that support development such as leadership framework courses, Hogan reports, 360 reports and ELDA all help to reduce leader blind-spots and enhance understanding of strengths and weaknesses.

 Guided Development: Education and Training

Structured education and training on empathy and other EQ competencies is commercially available in a range of different formats. Guided development can be useful to educate personnel on what empathy is, the value of it, and how it can be strengthened in workplace culture. This type of development can be sought out at unit level and below, and an opportunity also exists for the Army Leadership Centre and Institute for Leader Development to weave more explicit references and discussion of empathy into existing Leadership Development Framework courses. This could take the form of workshops, case studies and guided self-reflection activities.

Another important form of guided development are the professional conversations that occur between individuals and their immediate commanders or line managers on a routine basis. Broadening these discussions to consciously include empathy and other EQ competencies will serve to further improve self-awareness and understanding, while also contributing to the normalisation of these words and ideas within the workplace.

N. Martin, of the New Zealand Army health promotion team, takes mid-upper arm circumferences as part of a child growth development assessment in Vaentali Medical Centre, Rovo bay, Vanuatu.
Exercise Tropic Major aims to give NZDF personnel practice operating in a joint task
force in a tropical environment to provide regional security and humanitarian aid,
while providing training to members of the Vanuatu Police Force. The fictitious
scenario involves a breakdown of law and order on Epi Island, prompting the
Government of Vanuatu to request help to re-establish the rule of law and stability for
its citizens.

Empathy: A Worthwhile Investment

 Far from being irreconcilable with the requirements of an Army, empathy is actually a foundational competency. Supporting members of Ngāti Tumatauenga to develop their empathy throughout their careers will carry a range of direct and indirect benefits – all of which will contribute to strengthening the Moral Component of the New Zealand Army’s fighting power. The outcome will be a more resilient organisation that is better postured to deliver operational success in the most demanding of environments – regionally and globally.

First and foremost, empathy should receive greater prominence within our leadership doctrine and lexicon. Efforts can be made to raise awareness and understanding of empathy across all ranks, and it could receive greater attention in our personnel reporting, development and selection processes. A range of tools exist to support the development of empathy and other EQ competencies, and only a few have been introduced in this article. Many of these tools are already in use in some form within the NZDF, and a clearer focus on empathy will enable them to be better harnessed and applied.

As the New Zealand Army faces unprecedented challenges relating to attrition and capability regeneration, the time is right to invest in empathy. Doing so will help to ensure that our force remains an emotionally mature, learning organisation where our personnel are supported to achieve their full potential. The proverb ‘māku e kii atu, he tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata’ is at risk of being pigeon-holed like Clausewitz: over-quoted and usually without adequate context. Investing in empathy provides a way to breathe life into these words. By emphasising and developing empathy across all ranks, Ngāti Tumatauenga will be better placed to keep the interests of our people at the core of everything that we do. Future success on the battlefield and in other challenging mission sets will demand nothing less.



[i] The Cambridge Academic Content Dictionary, 1st Edition (Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[ii] The School of Life – An Emotional Education, Alain de Botton, Penguin (2020), p 3.

[iii] NZDDP-00.6 Leadership, p 6.

[iv] Kippenberger also took a public stand against the exclusion of Māori players in the All Black team to tour South Africa in 1949 – a position which at the time took considerable empathy and moral courage. For an excellent analysis of Kippenberger’s qualities as a commander, see: Glyn Harper, Kippenberger: An Inspired New Zealand Commander (Auckland: Harper Collins, 1997).

[v] Affective empathy is the ability to share the feelings of others, without any direct emotional stimulation to oneself. See: Jess Kerr-Gaffney, Amy Harrison & Kate Tchanturia, ‘Cognitive and Affective Empathy in Eating Disorders: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis’, Frontiers in Psychiatry (Vol. 10, No 102, Mar 2019).

[vi] W.L. Marshall, S.M. Hudson, R. Jones & Yolanda Maria Fernandez, ‘Empathy in sex offenders’, Clinical Psychology Review (Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1995).

[vii] Korina Winter, Stephanie Spengler, Felix Bermpohl, Tania Singer & Philipp Kanske, ‘Social cognition in aggressive offenders: Impaired empathy, but intact theory of mind’, Scientific Reports (Vol. 7, No 670, 2017).

[viii] Rosario Del Ray, Lambros Lazuras, José A. Casas, Vassilis Barkoukis, Rosario Ortega-Ruiz & Haralambos Tsorbatzoudis, ‘Does empathy predict (cyber) bullying perpetration, and how do age, gender and nationality affect this relationship?’, Learning and Individual Differences (Vol. 45, 2016).

[ix] Nicola Abbott and Lindsey Cameron, ‘What makes a young assertive bystander? The effect of intergroup contact, empathy, cultural openness, and in-group bias on assertive bystander intervention intentions’, Journal Of Social Issues (Vol. 70, No 1, 2014).

[x] NZDDP-00.6 Leadership, p 11.

[xi] Controller and Auditor-General, New Zealand Defence Force: The Civilianisation Project (Office of the Auditor-General, 2013), p 11.

[xii] Ibid, p 14.

[xiii] Ibid, p 15.

[xiv] ‘Reinventing the Leader Selection Process’, Harvard Business Review (November-December 2020). Available online at:

[xv] This could be as straightforward as providing a dashboard to development and promotion boards that highlights specific EQ competencies – based on psychometric assessment, direct and 360 degree reporting. The use of these tools for selection (rather than development) must be carefully considered and implemented, but the expertise exists within the NZDF to achieve this. Some of these methodologies are already applied to our initial Officer selection processes.

[xvi] The Confident Mind: A Battle-Tested Guide to Unshakable Performance, Nate Zinsser, Cornerstone Press (2022), p 67.