June 2019
Text by Prarthana Ajith

Image: © ImagineGolf/istockphoto.com

Prarthana Ajith currently manages the Information Engineering team at Micro Focus. She has over 14 years of experience in writing for hardware, storage, and software automation products. The science behind human behavior is a subject that has never ceased to intrigue her. She believes that a little bit of kindness in all that you say and do can go a long way in making the world a much better place!


prarthana.ajith[at]gmail.com


 

A superpower called empathy

"When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems." — Stephen Covey

Legend has it that a long time ago, villagers in the Solomon Islands followed a unique method for felling trees. If a tree was too large to be axed, woodsmen with special powers would creep in on the tree at the break of dawn, and scream at the top of their lungs and curse the tree. They would continue to do this for a period of thirty days, at the end of which the tree would supposedly die and fall over. The concept behind this act was that all the hollering and cursing would kill the spirit of the tree. While we won’t find any proof to the truth of this legend, the message that it carries is profound.

What is it that causes humans to fall over like a cursed tree? The answer is apathy. Known to cause the highest distress levels in human beings, apathy is what prevents them from being able to give their best in what they do.

 

Living life to its fullest

Empathy, on the other hand, is the salve to the human spirit that is ravaged by apathy. By simple definition, empathy is the ability to be able to put yourself aside in any situation, and give the benefit of your perspective to the other party concerned. By displaying this very simple, albeit powerful attribute called empathy, you can ease yourself and those around you into living the most real, authentic lives. Empathy is possibly the most important of all the attributes that humans can possess.

It is only when humans lead a life that is governed by their own uniqueness and passion that they can give their best in what they do. However, humans are social beings who seek emotional validation from the people that they deem important, for example, family, co-workers, and managers. They struggle hard to reprogram their beliefs and the conclusions that they have drawn about themselves and their life's limitations. This is why empathy takes a very important position in their decision-making at work, and in life itself.

Research has confirmed that empathy in the workplace has the capacity to build an environment of trust and engagement among employees which, in turn, leads to increased productivity, success, and profits for the organization. In his book Wired to Care, Dev Patnaik talks about how all types of organizations prosper when they tap into this power that all of us already have – the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people. When people inside a company develop a shared sense of what is going on in the world around them, they seek new opportunities faster than their competitors. They have the courage to take risks doing something new, and the conviction to stick with an idea that may not take off immediately.

Organizations that are led in an empathic manner reveal a structure that is totally different from those that are run in a hierarchical way. A sense of enhanced participation by the employees facilitates their efficiency, growth, and success. There is no way to separate collaboration from business processes, and this is why empathy is definitely going to be an intrinsic motivator for a long time to come.

 

Hierarchical vs. empathic culture

Organizations and corporations are living systems. Humans have lived in a dominating hierarchical structure for more than 3000 years, so the systems we apply to our workplace have come to mirror this.

Over the years, archaic organizational policies and cultures driven by industrialization have spilled over to knowledge-based and technological setups. Research states that just one in ten professionals are engaged in their jobs. For most employees, work has become a mere transaction, and no more a passion.

Even in highly organized ecosystems, there is an ever-increasing mental health crisis. In other cases, while people are emotionally driven, technology is fueling an empathy deficit. The advent of social media has led people to constantly question their self-worth and enhanced the desperate need to fit in. Online communication, rather than in-person communication, has made us lose the sharpness of collaboration and the spontaneity of creativity and ideas. And this is why being empathic to the people and environment around you has become the need of the hour!

 

Empathy is a muscle that needs to be trained

All your actions are in the service of your own needs. You constantly seek to measure the impact of your work on yourself, your family, stakeholders, customers, and the world in general. This impact can only be measured qualitatively when you make a journey towards leading an empathic life.

 

Show some self-love!

Have you seen how entrepreneurs are motivated to kick off a new venture by nothing more than a gritty vision? They have risk-taking abilities and the perseverance to carry through what they set out to achieve. They may fail sometimes, but choose to pick themselves up and surge ahead every single time. Driven by their passion to succeed, they focus on honing strong relationships with the people who build and sell their products. Appreciating themselves for business wins comes as easily as appreciating the efforts of the people they work with. Most times, they decide to walk in the shoes of their customers in an effort to understand the depth of the problems they face. They constantly seek feedback from customers to refine their products and services.

Now ask yourself these questions:

 

  • Are these not the very values that you need to achieve the best results at work?
  • If yes, then how can you keep the entrepreneur inside yourself alive while being a non-entrepreneur?

The answer is simple: by opting to keep your humanity and empathy intact. Here is the principle you must live by: Choose to choose yourself, to make your work work for you!

 

Interpersonal empathy

Dealing with people at work may turn out to be difficult at times, given that humans are prone to judgment. What makes it harder is that the people around us may come from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems.

Just how can you put empathy to use in such situations?

 

  • Put aside your viewpoint, and try to see things from the other person's point of view. When you do this, you will realize that other people most likely are not being evil, unkind, stubborn, or unreasonable. They are probably just reacting to the situation according to their prior knowledge and experience.
  • Validate the other person's perspective. Once you see why others believe what they believe, acknowledge it. Remember that acknowledgment does not always equal agreement. You can accept that people have different opinions from your own, and that they may have good reason to hold those opinions.
  • Examine your attitude. Are you more concerned with getting your way, winning, or being right? Or is your priority to find a solution, build relationships, and accept others? Without an open mind and attitude, you probably will not have enough room for empathy.
  • Listen. Listen to the entire message that the other person is trying to communicate. Listen with your ears, eyes, heart, and instincts. When in doubt, ask the person to explain his position. This is probably the simplest and most direct way to understand the other person. However, it is probably the least used way to develop empathy.

Practice these skills when you interact with people. You will more likely appear caring and approachable, simply because you increase your interest in what others think, feel, and experience. It is a great gift to be willing and able to see the world from a variety of perspectives, and it is a gift that you can use all the time, in any situation.

 

Organizational empathy

Research findings strongly suggest that the secret ingredient to a company’s success is empathy. There can be no innovation without change, and change comes only from thoughts that are way different from what your experiences have been to date. Empathy helps employees to take risks, to collaborate, and to move through change effectively.

To achieve this:

 

  • Place people over processes! Make small and simple "empathy nudges" to reshape the company culture. For example, set up clubs that may drive the alternative interests of employees, such as sports, music, movies, or languages.
  • Drive the values of empowerment, authenticity, growth, and belonging across the company. Treat people as a whole and not as units of production.
  • Encourage open, two-way communication with the idea of creating peace in the organization. Accept and consider working through the constructive criticism provided by employees.
  • Focus on being transparent about business needs and, in turn, drive a sense of shared purpose across the company. Remember that employees, once engaged to a shared purpose, tend to give their best. Make people feel that they are not here just to make a living, but to build a more abundant world for themselves and others.
  • Silence endless debates about whether flexible arrangements can work or not. Technology has made work across time and space possible so that we can bring home and work together.
  • Work on creating employee-driven policies that inspire diversity and inclusion.
  • Create a forgiving environment allowing employees to make mistakes. Remember that the learning that comes out of those mistakes is vital to the growth of the business.

 

Case studies on empathy

The most empathic companies are known to outperform those that demonstrate the lowest levels of empathy by 50 percent.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, facilitated the transformation of the mindset of Microsoft and its people from ego to empathy. This amendment was responsible for bringing the company out of impending doom, and also significantly increasing its market value. About what brought about this change, Nadella said, "Our core business is connected with the customers’ needs and we will not be able to satisfy them if we don’t have a deep sense of empathy."

Michael Ventura, CEO of the award-winning agency Sub Rosa, worked with General Electric (GE) to create a space for women to share their experiences and fears about going to mammography appointments. Through the power of empathy, they were able to solve this intimate issue for women.

For some businesses, empathy-driven customer initiatives provide the foundation for their own internal policies. At Cariloop, a company that creates a support platform for caregivers, empathy is already integrated into its business model. The company’s health care coaches routinely spend hours speaking with its members. Jason Osburn, the company’s chief empathy officer, makes a habit of sitting in on these calls and taking notes. He regularly works with his sales team to understand their users’ journey and what their goals and desires are, and to get a sense of what their audience wants. This entire approach is taken with an empathic design mindset, to work to create moments for the coach where he can be the hero and the users can make good on their goals and desires.

In other cases, businesses demonstrate empathy in the form of a robust policy or benefit. Market research indicates that the majority of employees define traditional benefits like health insurance and paid parental leave as empathic. Some companies like Southwest Airlines go even further. A non-profit organization within the company provides financial support to employees who have experienced severe hardships, such as natural disasters, in their lives. Voluntary contributions are automatically deducted from the salaries of participant workers, collecting several million dollars in aid.

A competitive benefits package is one of the keys to attracting new talent and retaining available talent. It is seen that employees respond most positively to empathic policies like Southwest’s, the kind where health and financial wellness are balanced with affordability. It is recommended to leaders that they review each generation in the workforce and ask this pertinent question: How do I align my benefits program and strategy with what the employee really wants? If this had to happen in a proactive, rather than a reactive manner, it would be a great way to engage the current workforce as well as the upcoming talent pool.

Leaders and employees are divided on whether AI can make an organization more empathic. Jared Feldman, founder of Canvs AI, is frank about the strengths and weaknesses of AI. Where AI does well at tasks that are scientific in nature, it struggles with distinctly human qualities such as emotion and creativity. In his opinion, rather than automating workers into obsolescence, it may ultimately end up only making their jobs easier. The company, which measures an audience’s emotional responses to brands, advertising, and entertainment, has also worked to develop an empathy-driven culture defined by transparency and rationality. Here, each new task is paired with an explanation of why it is being assigned. The employees are treated as full participants in the company’s mission, with workers and managers placed on a level playing field.

All these cases prove that empathy is not just a passing fad – it is a lifestyle that you must live and inspire the people around you to live by. In a highly disruptive world, change has become the new normal and problems have become increasingly challenging. To solve them in the most effective way, taking all perspectives into account is a necessity. With empathy, you can even come up with a hybrid of different solutions that can solve even the most complex problems in your organization.

Conclusion

The poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou once said, "I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it."

Traditionally, empathy was considered a sign of weakness. While a leader’s job was to make decisions, everybody else was expected to go along with them. As businesses evolve towards a collaborative approach at workplaces, it is time to come out of your empathy closets and realize empathy’s true strength. Each one of you should be able to show up at work as your most authentic self and feel safe and comfortable. It is only then that you can be committed to building well-designed products and services that the world will love to use!