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Soft skills: how to increase empathy in business

24th Apr 2019
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Greater empathy within organisations has been linked to improved business performance, so isn’t it time we all injected a bit more empathy into our day-to-day business practices?

Digital transformation is a bandwagon many companies continue to try and jump on. Last year alone, a purported $1.3 trillion was spent globally on digital projects. Despite this, it appears that many of these projects are bound to fail.

There are multiple reasons for this failure, but one of the standout causes is a lack of the requisite leadership skills and an ill-adapted corporate culture.

For leadership, it is my contention that empathy is one of the missing and most necessary skills to develop. While empathy can’t solve all things, it’s a skill set that could do much to help promote any kind of transformation.

A fundamental shift in culture

To bring empathy into an organisation is no easy feat, especially if the organisation is not known for it in the first place.

A few companies, like L'Oréal, PepsiCo and CVS, have started programmes that address or promote empathy.

Some companies, like Barnes & Noble and Meitu, have even inscribed empathy as a core value.

Empathy cannot just be a programme or seeded into a company through a training seminar, however. It’s not something that can be taught. It must be learned.

Moreover, it needs to be practiced in the small moments on a regular basis, starting at the top, to take hold properly.

Cognitive versus affective empathy

In a business context, it is important to make a distinction between cognitive and affective empathy.

Affective empathy is when you feel the same emotions as the individual in front of you.

Cognitive empathy is when you understand the emotions and context of that individual.

If affective empathy has been identified as more genetically transmittable than cognitive empathy, it also stands to reason that cognitive empathy may be easier to learn.

As far as my experience and this article are concerned, I am focussed on the benefits of deploying cognitive empathy in business.

If senior management is serious about flexing its empathic muscle, there are many ways it can help achieve your business objectives.

How empathy can improve your business

One of the chief ways empathy can be beneficial in business is by helping to enhance employee engagement.

While empathy can be used to improve external-facing activities in general, the real power is by employing empathy within the organisation.

Businessolver’s 2019 State of Workplace Empathy report found that 93% of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathic employer.  

Furthermore, in the 2018 edition of the survey, 87% of CEO’s agreed (and 43% strongly agreed) that the financial performance of a company is tied to empathy.  

It’s important to recognise that empathy includes taking the time to listen and, quite often, extra time is in short supply.

Beyond being empathic with the staff, empathy is particularly useful in creating a more collaborative workplace and in fostering diversity.

It is also an essential skill in all matters of design (e.g. user experience). Using empathy in design thinking is vital to enhance innovation, as well as for designing packaging and services.

Empathy has multiple benefits for sales and marketing, including in the construction of promotions, ads, taglines and email campaigns.

The strongest opportunity, though, is typically in improving the customer experience. In the various points of contact with the customer, empathy can be valuable including in store, on social media or via customer service.

How to encourage more empathy

Since cognitive empathy is not something that can be taught, but needs to be learned and encouraged, the easiest route to creating an empathic organisation is to hire individuals prone to be empathic (i.e. who tend to have good listening and observational skills).

For existing companies with embedded cultures, the bigger challenge is converting to or promoting a more empathic manner.

Certainly, it can be useful to provide training courses and resources, but the key to learning to be empathic is through experiences and fostering an environment that encourages empathy.

For example, you can organise learning expeditions designed to get individuals to interact with people with different backgrounds and perspectives.

As with most change management, especially in matters of mindset, make sure the intention is led from the top and is both ethical and linked to your strategic imperatives.  

There are various mindfulness exercises you can use, and I heartily encourage people to meditate and to read good fiction, because fiction is proven to open your eyes to other people’s viewpoints and experiences.  

The key for leadership is to understand that it’s not a fix-all or a quick solution. It’s important to recognise that empathy includes taking the time to listen and, quite often, extra time is in short supply.

Furthermore, stress is one of the primary empathy killers in business. Stress and pressure will tend to stimulate the brain’s amygdala, thus crowding out the higher function of empathy.

Researchers found that one’s ability to empathise is dramatically reduced when one has to make quick decisions.

Implications for leadership

If you’re hoping to create a more empathic culture, there are several important implications for leadership.

First, your top team needs to be sufficiently self-aware to understand their own current levels of empathy and how much scope there is for improvement within the top strata. There is no point in being too ambitious about something that must fundamentally be for the long haul.

Second, it’s important to establish what empathy looks like for your organisation. I would encourage finding ways to include the associated behaviours as part of your company culture and including these behaviours in any personnel reviews.

Finally, while ideally we would have empathy as a general skill employed throughout the company, at the outset of the journey toward greater empathy it will be relevant to consider where specifically you think it can be most effective.

There is no doubt that creating a more empathic organisation can be transformational, but it needs to be intentional yet organic – and it will take time.

As with most change management, especially in matters of mindset, make sure the intention is led from the top and is both ethical and linked to your strategic imperatives.  

If that weren’t enough to encourage you to be more empathic, studies have shown that greater empathy also means higher shareholder returns. Are you ready to listen and to flex your empathic muscle?

Interested in this topic? Read Putting the ‘human’ back into human resources.

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By donr1
26th Apr 2019 08:28

Greetings...…..
Any idea as to how organisations can become more efficient should always be welcome on a management programme, and this topic is no exception. Good reading as it reinforces what has been out there for way before my time...……….if you want something to work then the senior team must not just embrace it, but live it. Have no idea why this message is still missing from so many places!!

Small consideration though...……...why cannot empathy be taught?? Reason I ask is if we are able to identify empathy at work, how come it is not possible to lift out those empathetic actions and teach them to others. See, unless I have completely missed the bus on this, every performance requirement is identified by an action. So in that case why not pick up on those actions and work with people as to how they can make them work for themselves in their Team? Just a matter of helping them recognize what you, the Team Leader, look for to tell them empathy is taking place.

Cheers. DonR.

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