Empathy – the capacity to be aware of and sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experience of others – is something we often associate with learning on the grade school playground. However, it is not a skill all master equally, and yet it is critical to success in the work place.
As many companies strive for innovation, empathy as a professional skill is garnering attention. The popularity of design thinking as a problem solving strategy relies on empathy to put the ‘end’ users’ needs at the forefront of the process. Designers spend significant time considering how the end user might benefit from a new product or solution, what needs and challenges they have, and what other experiences they may be bringing to the situation, all which influence the creative problem-solving process. Innovators often spend significant time building ‘personas’ – templates that drive thinking to get into the heads of their customers and see how they live day in and day out. In the realm of technology and engineering, design thinking has elevated the ability to empathize as a prime professional skill.
Professionals concerned with customer service have long understood the value of empathy. Knowing how a customer experiences an existing product or service, or how he or she perceives an organization is critical for a business’s success. Today, some companies go the extra mile to truly understand their customers’ and employees’ experience. An executive at one of the premier pay-for-TV companies recently told me about their policy of having executives ride with technicians and go into people’s home to install equipment and trouble-shoot problems. He said that nothing helps upper management solve problems faster and more effectively than truly knowing their customer base and seeing for themselves what it’s like to represent the company on the front lines.
Empathy impacts our day-to-day interactions at work as well. The ability to manage up, across and down, often directly correlates with one’s empathy quotient. When coaching new managers, I spend time exploring strategies for boosting empathy. How can they better understand and anticipate their boss’s needs? How can they individualize their management style to suit a team of direct reports demonstrating different levels of motivation, experience and engagement? How do they add-value to a team of colleagues with conflicting personalities and challenging dynamics? The skill of empathy can be a new manager’s best tool for success.
Nothing can sabotage success like the lack of empathy. Just this week a coffee shop in the historical Five Points neighborhood of Denver made headlines for posting a sign that read, “Happily gentrifying the neighborhood since 2014.” Longtime residents who have called the neighborhood home for generations were insulted. The CEO apologized for his ‘blind spot’ to others’ interpretations of the sign. Empathy as to how his message could be received could have prevented a now damaged reputation.
At the most basic level, empathy can be a defining metric for appropriate and inappropriate behavior, all by simply understanding how someone might perceive one’s actions. Just last week David Brooks, Opinion Editor at the New York Times, was asked about the recent string of sexual harassment allegations in the press. He said he was surprised by how often the accused responded by saying “they had no idea women were thinking this way.” Brooks goes on to comment, “it’s an inability to put your mind in the mind of the person…it’s a sort of moral and human blindness toward another human being’s experience.”
Today, this blindness – or lack of empathy – is toppling many at the height of their careers. The time is ripe to rethink empathy as a professional skill so that all may survive and thrive in today’s workplace.