Empathy, the Super Power – the one competency that builds others

Empathy, the Super Power – the one competency that builds others

“One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them”, is a quote from one of my all-time favourite movies, Lord of the Rings, that I find very relevant as an analogy for empathy. EMPATHY needs to be every organization’s fundamental mantra that binds all the other behavioural skills to enable their employees to demonstrate success.

1. EMPATHY & CUSTOMER CENTRICITY - Enabling ‘The Human Side’ To Customer Service”

This has to be a no-brainer. Can there be a better way to put the customer at the front and centre than living in his or her shoes? Thinking like the customer is the most obvious way to understand their needs or problems and draw insights. When empathy becomes the starting point, processes and SOPs become more sensitive and also allows for innovations and pro-action to go beyond processes to delight customers.

Imagine an employee taking the order at a self-service fast food chain from an old couple. Instead of repeating his standard script of “Welcome to…. May I take your order? He offers them a seat and glass of water and takes the order from there. Empathy allows for the “Human side” of customer service to emerge which the standard process lead training can never achieve.

While customer facing staff at such organizations and industries with similar characteristics are trained to perfection on the SOPs of customer service; such behaviour as mentioned in the scene above shouldn’t be about that individual’s initiative but about the element of empathy that has to be ingrained at the training stage as an important element of customer service.

2. EMPATHY & COACHING & DEVELOPING THE TEAM - Where One Style Does Not Fit All.

For leaders, especially those new to leadership roles, perhaps the biggest challenge in their transition to leading teams is moving from doing to getting things done. This means consistent effort in coaching and developing the team for their skills, behaviours, attitudes etc. as well as motivating them to raise their level to meet yours.

Demonstrating empathy ensures that the leader doesn’t paint the whole team with the same (read one’s own) brush. It ensures that the leader doesn’t assume that the style that comes most naturally to him/her is necessarily the most effective one. Leaders become more sensitive to each team member’s personality, temperament, working style and use the mode of interaction that is most appropriate for that individual to get the best out of them.

Imagine an ASM having a review meeting with his/her team. While some may get pumped and motivated by speeches about pushing hard for numbers over a drink together, others might need one-on-one sit down in private as they may not be comfortable to speak in public. An empathetic leader will be able to sense that people are wired differently and act accordingly ensuring greater effectiveness of the meeting.

3.EMPATHY & COMMUNICATING WITH IMPACT - From Delivering a Message to Getting Things Done.

The most obvious application of empathy as a behaviour is the way we communicate. It allows us to redefine communication from “Delivering a Message” to “Getting through” or “Getting things Done”

We then habitually begin to listen more to get into the head of the other person and try and understand where they are coming from, as we change our tack to make our response more impactful.

Imagine delegating a project to the newest member of the team who shows promise. You notice that he is not prompt and doesn’t respond in a timely manner. He keeps missing timelines too which is reflecting poorly and is affecting the way the client feels about your team. Instead of jumping in to directly respond to the client (which is a usual response), imagine if you can take the time to understand why this is happening. You may find out that the workload is more than the team can handle, maybe getting in another resource temporarily solves the problem. This then empowers him to respond in time, meet his deadlines and be a better leader.

4. INFLUENCING WITHOUT AUTHORITY - Creating Buy-In by Demonstrating Understanding.

In today’s unstructured world of start-ups, there is a high dependence on people with whom we have little authority and who might have differing priorities from our own (people from other functions, leadership team, vendors & so on). In such situations, demonstrating empathy visibly and with authenticity earns true respect that leads to influence. Then one gets support because others “want to” and not “have to”.

Imagine you need a report (from a crossfuntional team) sooner than the estimated deadline as your output depends on it. You call up your colleague to make this request and she says that she is swamped and cannot meet your deadline. And that is that!

But what if you could say, ‘Hey, I need this report sooner than anticipated. I know you might be swamped and cannot make the time for it. Can I make the first draft of it and present it to you so you can take a look and save time? Or are there any other tasks I can take off your table so you can pencil this in?’ It completely changes the approach and shows the other person that you are interested in their schedules and deadlines too, making them more amenable to react to your needs.

5. EMPATHY & COLLABORATION - Enabling Big Picture Conversations & providing the Why?

Perhaps the biggest challenge in today’s corporate environment in taking well thought out strategies towards quick and flawless execution is the ability of multiple teams to work together amidst ambiguity and seemingly divergent priorities. Empathy towards what other teams might be going through and what their challenges might be allows us to adopt a win-win approach to all interactions, thus helping manage bottlenecks that hold back execution.

Imagine you need to work closely with the internal marketing team to promote a social media campaign of your latest promotional offer. As a part of the new sales strategy, this is your top priority and you want to leave no stones unturned. But the marketing team is busy with the upcoming launch of a new product and has very little time or resources to spare. How can you find a win-win in this situation?

Instead of asking them to deliver your promotional campaign, could you try telling them why you need it, how it impacts the sales numbers for that quarter, how you’re planning to target an untapped audience, etc. Show them the big picture of the outcome you expect and how you estimate the sales projections. Additionally, asking to chip in or how you can help them could go a long way in finding a collaborative response.

6. EMPATHY BUILDING TRUST - By Respecting Diversity of Opinions & Ideas.

Being trustworthy is a foundational behaviour that is a critical success factor for every leader irrespective of where they sit in the hierarchy and is a part of defined leadership competencies of most organizations. And building trust is as much about respecting diverse opinions and points of view. Truly accepting diversity is enabled only by imagining what it is to be the other person in that situation; the very essence of being empathetic.

Imagine your organization has come up with a new idea for a product or service. The higher management team seems very sold on the idea and wants to execute it as soon as possible. You want to talk to your team, who are the ones on the field, to get their understanding of the possibility and success of the product. They are the ones directly in constant touch with the end consumer.

Instead of presenting the idea and sharing the buy-in of the top management (which could get people to quickly agree so as to not ruffle feathers or stand up against the idea), could you present the idea and ask them for their honest opinions? In the case of a different or a divergent view (which has value), could you as a leader, find a way to listen and incorporate it?

7. EMPATHY & INNOVATION - By Enabling “Living in the shoes of the customer”

Most great innovations are a product of personal experiences where some product or service could have made that situation better. But not all innovations can be born purely from personal experiences especially if you are not an inventor or an entrepreneur looking for the next big idea. In an organizational context, wearing the shoes of the end-user and seeing one’s own product or service as part of their life regularly can help us understand customer pain points, identify opportunities for improvement.

Perhaps more importantly, it forces us to challenge the status quo and not be defensive or complacent about the quality of our offering, thus creating the right platform for innovation to happen.

Can you look at innovative ways of enhancing the display of your products on shelves if you do not spend enough time watching your target audience in stores shopping? Do you think financial products like insurance policies could be sold better if the guys who design the sales experience actually were part of a typical sales pitch or spent time with their potential customers?

Satya Nadella in his book says ‘Empathy grounds me and centres me’ and has built his company into the most valuable company in the world by changing the way quality human interactions can drive hard business metrics.
Hope you’ve found convincing evidence on why Empathy is worth evangelizing as a super competency that needs to be built throughout the organization. Click here to read more on how you can build empathy.