As business leaders, it’s easy to get consumed in the pressures of running your business. It’s stressful, but there is a consequence to that stress, and it can be damaging for business, as well as your own health.
When you’re finding it tough, it’s easy to lose sight that the individuals around you are also struggling with their own worries. One can quickly get irritated or lose patience with colleagues, but they, too, have their feelings and issues.
So how can you get the best from everybody, even when you’re under duress. It’s my belief that one of the most powerful and untapped levers of productivity in business is empathy.
If you can flex your empathic muscles, it will pay off in terms of employee engagement, but also in designing a better customer experience. Time limitations and performance pressures have a way of getting in the way.
In this article, I will argue why and how you ought to invest some time and energy in being more empathic.
Why empathy is important for a business
You’d think it’s obvious but getting into the shoes of your customer is much harder than it sounds. For starters, one can easily get overwhelmed by the number of different shoes to fill. I mean every customer is a little bit different.
Business has a way of getting in the way of getting into those shoes. That’s what empathy is and, reality is, that most people don’t feel that businesses are very empathic with them.
Being empathic with customers makes loads of sense, but the real challenge is having a culture and business context that allows empathy within and without the company.
Insofar as people management is difficult and change management is even harder, getting the people in your business to be more empathic is a tall order. Caveat emptor: it must start at the top.
It is my strong conviction that businesses ought to strive for more empathy for 6 important reasons.
1. Employee engagement
Higher levels of empathy within the company, i.e. with your staff, will help improve employee engagement.
If your company wishes to benefit from and promote diversity, empathy is a precondition for making diversity work in your organisation.
If you wish to be considered as a company with good ethics, empathy is a vital ingredient for composing your ethical framework.
4. Customer engagement
If you are keen to become a customer-centric organization, being empathic with your customer up and down the many contact points of the customer journey will help increase engagement and satisfaction.
If you need to design better experiences and/or products for your customer, empathy is a core principle of design thinking.
If you want to make your marketing messages and promotional efforts more effective, it’s key to think through how you can become more useful, engaging and valuable for your customer.
How to become more empathic
So, how might one become more empathic?
The good news is that pretty much anyone can learn to become more empathic. Unfortunately, though, you can’t teach it, any more than you can impose it. You can only create an environment that favours and encourages learning to be empathic.
So, if you are genuinely interested in raising your empathy levels in business, there are four important steps:
- Establish and share broadly how empathy is going to help you to achieve your overall strategy.
- Be self-aware. By taking an honest look at your internal culture, you need to benchmark where you stand and how far you wish to go.
- Find/encourage ways for members of the team to explore diverse perspectives, which could include activities ranging from doing empathy journeys to visiting the Empathy Museum to encouraging the reading of good fiction. The key to empathy is being able to observe and listen intently.
- Measure how well you are doing by your customers. Data is a strong motivator.
The business benefits of empathy
For companies that embark on genuinely upping their empathic muscle, there is evidence that says that it pays off in terms of shareholder value.
A 2016 study showed that the top 10 of 170 companies graded on the Empathy Index (created by Belinda Parmar) increased in value (defined by market capitalisation) more than twice as much as the bottom 10.
It turns out that they also generated 50% more earnings. But I’d argue that the stronger motivation is that empathy is a powerful and most needed life skill, one that helps improves our lives in every facet, inside and outside work.
A business that is run with genuine empathy will garner a special word of mouth, among employees, partners and customers, that will pay back in spades the effort it takes.
Improving your personal empathy
It’s a muscle you can build, but it’s also a muscle that will wither if not properly exercised. Here are three things you can do to flex your own empathic muscle:
1. Make a concerted effort to go talk and listen to people that come from different backgrounds than yourself. For example, take an extra moment to talk to the cashier at the local grocery store or a grandmother waiting at the bus stop. Find out how they feel?
2. Do role-playing exercises with your team, where everyone has to play the other side (whatever or whomever that might be).
3. Read good fiction or watch a classic film and consciously relate to the characters’ feelings.
It’s not about being goody-two-shoes and striving for 100% empathy, all the time. Especially in small teams, where individuals come from differing backgrounds, you need empathy to better understand one another.
And, by applying empathy externally, you will tend to find alternative and better ways to satisfy your customers. Along the way, you may find life more rewarding, too.
This guide was written exclusively by Minter Dial, professional speaker and author of Heartificial Empathy, Putting Heart into Business and Artificial Intelligence (shortlisted for a Business Book Award 2019), and of Futureproof: How to Get Your Business Ready for the Next Disruption (winner of a Business Book Award 2018). Both books are available as paperback and ebook. Heartificial Empathy will be out in audiobook shortly.