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The Business Case for Empathy
I recently spoke with the director of human resources at a San Francisco Bay Area company regarding providing executive coaching for the company’s CEO. The director of human resources asked some very insightful questions to determine whether we were a good fit. She specifically wanted to know how I worked with different personality styles, and my methods for initiating behavior change. She was very interested in my executive coaching work with helping their senior leadership creating a more empathic organization.
The director of human resources and I spoke about my approach to coaching, and my belief that possessing a psychological understanding of human behavior and specifically empathy are important leadership competencies. We also spoke of the need for her organization to work with a management consultant to help their company create a culture where creativity and innovation thrives.
The director of human resources is interested in partnering with me in helping their CEO become more emotionally intelligent and empathic. We further discussed how other company executives could benefit by working with a seasoned executive coach.
In an uncertain economy, empathy may seem like a soft business skill. It can, however, serve as a catalyst for new growth, innovation and employee engagement, all of which drive profits and long-term results.
“Companies prosper when they tap into a power that every one of us already has—the ability to reach outside of ourselves and connect with other people,” writes Stanford University Adjunct Professor Dev Patnaik in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. Most organizations over-rely on data, to the exclusion of face-to-face customer contact. It’s important to remember that we are intrinsically social animals, with an innate ability to sense what others are thinking and feeling.
If you stay in touch with colleagues and customers, you’ll have a better sense of what’s going on in the world. You’ll also surpass competitors at spotting new opportunities.
In Your Customers’ Shoes
Modern technological improvements in data-mining provide strategic plans, sales forecasts and manufacturing reports. Companies become so dependent on these models that they can lose touch with reality.
Firms use all of this information to create maps—market segmentations, research reports—of how customers use their products. But these maps are poor substitutes for actual human contact. Many managers make critical decisions based on numbers, without any personal feeling for the people they serve. They fail to spot new opportunities and innovative solutions for customers.
Nike has built an entire culture that celebrates the potential for athletic greatness in each of us. The company’s headquarters resemble an athletic center; its employees take breaks for running, basketball and soccer games. The people who develop running shoes are usually runners themselves. They possess a basic intuition that cannot be captured in any market report.
Harley-Davidson’s office is a shrine to the motorcycle culture the company helped create. Offices display photos, memorabilia and banners from rallies. Customers and employees ride together. Engineers, accountants and administrative staff acquire an intuitive understanding of the customers who buy their products.
Harley-Davidson’s leaders mandate that company executives spend measurable time on the streets with motorcycle riders. While many employees don’t ride, the company nonetheless instills its lifestyle and values.
Other major companies have learned the value of empathy:
- IBM helps customers keep their information technology up and running by staying as close to them as possible.
- Microsoft succeeded with the Xbox because it was designed for gamers by developers who love games.
- Apple makes computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods for people who covet cool, easy-to-use products. The company’s organizational culture reflects its customers’ lifestyles.
Business happens on the street, in stores and in homes. When companies have a real connection with end users, they come up with better product designs.
The Way Things Used to Be
Overly simplified, abstract information often carries authority inside organizations. Knowing and understanding your customers is the antidote.
Harley Davidson gets it right once again. The company hires fans and publicizes its connection with consumers. Leaders work hard to stay in touch with consumers’ changing needs.
This is the way business used to be conducted two centuries ago. For thousands of years, craftsmen made things for people they knew. Tailors, cobblers and other tradesmen understood what their customers wanted.
This approach ended with the Industrial Revolution. As more goods were mass-produced in factories, suppliers and consumers experienced a growing rift—one that we’ve been struggling to repair ever since.
Connecting through Social Media
Despite living in an age where technology has made always-on data connections ubiquitous, we are more disconnected from the people we impact than at any other time in history. Even with the proliferation of social-media sites, we continue to miss opportunities for genuine dialogue.
Fortunately, many companies are changing this. They know their customers crave the ability to provide immediate input on specific products and services. Consumers prefer to buy products from businesses that know and care about customers’ needs. Managers and front-line employees must listen empathically to what consumers have to say. When managed properly, social-media sites allow open communication.
A 2011 study conducted by Parasole Restaurant Holdings and newBrandAnalytics found what consumers say online increases staff ownership of the employee/customer relationship.
Indeed, technology can actually enrich relationships between customers and employees. But it requires commitment from senior managers, who must:
- Affirm their commitment to active, empathic involvement with customers
- Understand the ways in which current procedures and systems mediate interactions with customers
- Promote the deployment of social networks and other technologies to help customers tell their stories
- Encourage and enable workers and managers to hear them
Inside the Empathic Organization
Professor Patnaik has created the term “Open Empathy Organizations” for those that encourage employees to focus on empathy as part of the company mission. Success requires employees at all levels to be genuinely interested in other people, and there must be multiple ways for them to interact.
Open Empathy Organizations also provide ways for employees to buy and use the company’s products and services. Netflix gives DVD players and free subscriptions to employees, who can learn firsthand how customers experience the company.
Gardening giant Smith & Hawken, for example, boasts a large garden at its company headquarters. Leaders encourage employees to plant and tend to crops, while familiarizing themselves with the company’s products.
At such empathic companies, employees begin to understand how their work plays a positive role in their customers’ lives. Staffers become more attached to the results they see at work.
Employees perform at optimum levels when they know they make a difference. When they are encouraged to demonstrate care for customers, they become more engaged and energized.
Are you working in a professional services firm or other organization where executive coaches provide leadership development to help leaders become more empathetic? Does your organization provide executive coaching for leaders who need to learn how to develop more empathy? Enlightened leaders tap into their emotional intelligence and social intelligence skills to create a more fulfilling future.
One of the most powerful questions you can ask yourself is “How empathetic am I?” Emotionally intelligent and socially intelligent organizations provide executive coaching to help leaders restore their energy and commitment.
Working with a seasoned executive coach and leadership consultant trained in emotional intelligence and incorporating assessments such as the Bar-On EQ-I, CPI 260 and Denison Culture Survey can help leaders build high performance organizations where empathy in business is a virtue. You can become a leader who models emotional intelligence and social intelligence, and who inspires people to become fully engaged with the vision, mission and strategy of your company or law firm.
About Dr. Maynard Brusman
Dr. Maynard Brusman is a consulting psychologist, executive coach and trusted advisor to senior leadership teams. He is the president of Working Resources, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. We specialize in helping San Francisco Bay Area companies and law firms assess, select, coach, and retain emotionally intelligent leaders. Maynard is a highly sought-after speaker and workshop leader. He facilitates leadership retreats in Northern California and Costa Rica. The Society for Advancement of Consulting (SAC) awarded Dr. Maynard Brusman "Board Approved" designations in the specialties of Executive Coaching and Leadership Development.