Why Empathy Is the Most Important Trait Today
Reflecting upon my career as challenger, innovator & leader, I can safely say that no single idea or business strategy has generated the kind of power that empathy delivers. Empathy transcends leadership, culture, innovation and marketing, as the key driving force in today’s communications ecosphere. Whilst I recognise the concept of empathy might not align well with the narcotic culture of aggressive growth, the truth is, that for sustainable success and stability, leaders need to truly understand what their customers, employees and colleagues feel. This is no longer negotiable.
What Empathy Is and Isn’t
Empathy is routinely misused as a synonym for recognising a person’s point-of-view. Derived from the Greek words “em” and “pathos,” it literally means ‘into feeling’. As such, empathy is the process of identifying with the psychological feelings, attitudes and thoughts of another person. In this regard, true empathy is all about being able to walk in others shoes and feel exactly what they feel. Yet while we recognise empathy as the cornerstone of emotional and social intelligence, many people still don’t know how it relates to their own effectiveness. To the contrary, the expression of empathy is often thought of as something that primarily benefits others. Used often, empathy is a powerful and life-changing trait connecting you to other people’s intensity and commitment to a cause.
Wired to feel
Fortunately, we have evolved in such a way that we are chemically rewarded when we extend consideration beyond ourselves. The chemical currency of empathy is controlled by four neurotransmitters working together and generating feelings of success, happiness, personal satisfaction, and trust. These are, Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, and Oxytocin. These chemicals not only makes us feel good, but also drive survival skills. Dopamine and Endorphins control selfish activities. They mask pain, generate stamina to complete a goal and provide that warm flush of reward when it’s mission accomplished. Serotonin and Oxytocin, however, control the more selfless functions essential to species survival. Serotonin stimulates the feeling of pride when other people show respect or when we receive recognition for our efforts, whilst Oxytocin promotes the longer term effects of empathy and trust. In fact, Oxytocin is what keeps everything in control. The more we experience empathy and trust, the more Oxytocin flows and reinforces these bonds and, in turn, keeps selfish pleasure, arrogance, and pride in check. In short, empathy begets empathy.
Lessons from the past
There are countless examples of failed and fractured business decisions thanks to leaders not taking into account the true feelings of stakeholders, customers, and employees. Whilst decisions are made after weighing the pros and cons of the situation, employees and customers’ points-of-view are often relegated as just one more pro or con.
Blockbuster Video seriously miscalculated how its audience would respond to Netflix and didn’t rise to the challenge. Management clearly didn’t empathise with its audience and thought its billion-dollar empire was immune from competition. The company disappeared almost overnight.
More recently, the story of Zenefits and its mismanagement paints a vivid picture of executive hubris, greed, and arrogance . Parker Conrad, founder and former CEO, created a culture focussed on winning at any cost. Empathy was practically non-existent preferring to run a company on questionable morals and social irresponsibility. The highlight was software developed intentionally to help salespeople circumvent mandatory insurance license training. Eventually, Parker and most of the executive team were replaced, 250 sales people were let go, and Zenefits is now in the process of a cultural and operational restructure.
Leading with Empathy
Self-awareness is critical for true leadership, but leadership comes with additional requirements…you’ve got to feel what others feel to steer the decision-making process in the right direction. It’s undeniable that leaders have to make hard choices, but when you feel other people’s emotions, you empower better decision-making. Real leaders listen much more than they speak.
Some of the tangible benefits you can expect include:
- Building trust in all business interactions
- Understanding customer behavior & the power of shared emotions
- Build better support systems for customers and employees
- Strengthening collaboration skills
- Opening people to new ideas
- Knowing how to motivate people to achieve company goals
- Negotiating and resolving disagreements faster and more effectively
- Changing gears when the story in your mind doesn’t match other people’s perceptions
If you come away from this post with only one thing, I trust that it’s the ability to feel enthusiastic about empathy in your everyday interactions. That said, I recognise it’s a struggle for many executives and entrepreneurs to show empathy because of its perception as a weakness. The common rationale of “it’s not personal; it’s just business” is a terrible cliché that thought leaders and forward-feeling people know to be false. All business decisions that affect others generate deeply personal consequences. Disgruntled employees, dissatisfied customers, and cheated partners invariably take matters personally.
Learning empathy helps you recognise your own strengths, weaknesses, and feelings. Your emotions influence the people around you, so it’s often necessary to self-regulate your internal feelings. If you show drive, achievement, loyalty, optimism and empathy, others can’t help but notice your leadership skills.
Challenging prejudices and discovering commonalities are among empathy’s strongest business benefits. Develop a habit of genuine interest and asking questions about other people without becoming too intrusive. The most important skill for developing empathy is challenging your own preconceptions. Try to find commonalities that allow you to feel what others feel. You’ll need to listen actively to what people say to make sure that you understand what they’re really saying. The show “Undercover Boss” works because bosses really get chances to feel how their employees feel, and people connect with that idea because so many of them feel unappreciated and neglected.
Brand 101: Empathy Inside
Marketing strategy has undergone a revolutionary transformation in the digital age. Customers that are members of digital communities of like-minded peopled are now in control of the process. People expect personal messages and interactions when they visit a company website. The days of hard transactional selling are over, and people ignore heavy-handed promotions. Some even install adblockers! as such messages need to be more carefully crafted and targeted to key groups. Blanket media advertising has given way to personalised marketing based on persona and buying habits. It’s clear that empathy is a powerful tool when planning modern marketing strategies. When you develop empathy as a passive trait, you naturally put your audience first.
Amazon built an empire by empathising with consumers. Success in business involves fulfilling needs, and you can’t do that unless you know how other people feel. Successful companies use all their resources to find out about their customers, employees, shortcomings and opportunities. Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” True innovation comes from identifying people’s needs from their emotions and providing products and services that fulfill these emotional needs.
Real innovation doesn’t involve making quick fixes. You’ve got to go deeper to find the burning issue and come up with innovations that address what people really feel. Using empathy to guide you in design thinking can generate huge rewards even when the development process is costly and subject to bad starts.
Content marketing has become a major strategy for savvy marketers, and savvy content goes beyond traditional brand promises. It’s important to give your customers insights that satisfy their deepest interests, and empathy empowers the process. You’ve got to put your audience first by understanding people’s emotional quotient. In effect, you’ve got to interact with your audience, show them behind-the-scenes stories and engage them emotionally. Of course, you’ve got to understand your customers and how they perceive your business story. Ultimately your brand is what they feel. The most successful marketers look beyond the obvious characteristics of demographic and focus on creative strategies that engage emotions and celebrate each person as an individual.
Science, technology, common sense and concern for other people unite when thought leaders embrace leadership culture empathy. Empathy powers innovation, solves business problems and raises your value with key stakeholders. That’s why the savviest leaders try to read other people’s feelings before starting any new business or introducing new products. I can ask only one thing of people who want to succeed in business or become thought leaders in the age of real-time communication: Internalise the value of empathy and add it to your core feelings. You can’t use empathy successfully unless you really feel its value.
There are no easy answers for how to elevate one’s consciousness and empathetic response. What I can say is that through daily choices of mindset and behavior, anyone can rewire their brain towards empathy. As with everything, we need to take a multi-faceted approach. Rigorous mindfulness training, loving-kindness meditation, and giving back through altruistic behavior and volunteering go a long way.
Sometimes, just a simple ‘hey, are you ok?’ is all you need.
Let’s start today.