Empathy: The Secret Sauce of Effective Leadership

Aug 16, 2021

Walk a mile in their shoes. Treat others the way you want to be treated. These days, many business leaders are picking up on something we were supposed to learn from our parents by the time we were five years old.

Of course, business schools don’t usually use phrases like be nice, so instead, the term empathy is in vogue.

In the context of organizational development, empathy is a profound and thorough understanding of your various stakeholders; it is the amalgam of their contexts, motivations, and attitudes.

Compare that to the stereotypical businessperson. Win at all costs. What can you do for me? What have you done for me lately? Sure, they want to walk in your shoes—the same way Jack Handey joked, “Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.”

That may be the old way, but empathy is vital in modern business.

Wired Magazine spotlighted empathy as one of the key themes in the business world in 2013. HuffPost called empathy “the missing link to solving the world’s most pressing problems.” A Harvard Business Review blog declared empathy “the most important thing they teach at Harvard Business School.”

Why empathy?

In the past, leaders could issue edicts from their seats of power, but leaders of the future must serve their constituents by seeking empathy. While the focus of attention is usually the customer, this posture of thoughtfulness should permeate the organization. Executives should view the organization from their employees’ perspectives. Purchasing agents should consider their vendors’ points of view. And everyone should seek to understand the funders who have backed the organization.

Why is empathy so important? Empathetic organizations build mutually beneficial relationships that unleash incredible value. Even—if not especially—in today’s world of short-term job stints, this organizational mindset matters.

I can think of three main benefits to any organization acting with empathy.

  1. It’s good for the other person. Quite simply, empathy adds value and worth to someone else and/or provides them with something they need. It works for customers, vendors, employees, and participants. It’s not simply giving them what they want (like increasingly large soft drinks even when it’s horrible for their health); it’s thinking from their perspective.
  2. It’s good for you. If you’re like me, you need help thinking about someone other than yourself. We know we need to be less selfish, but selfishness comes so naturally. Empathy in business serves as a discipline to help you begin to think about others. It’s not just a business act; it’s a molding of our character and a healthy shifting of perspective.
  3. It’s good for the organization. Organizations that understand their customers’ deepest needs and unstated desires tend to win. This article argues that innovation starts with empathy. Empathy knocks down false assumptions and breaks stereotypes, freeing organizations to create products that people will buy and services that people will use—all without wasting resources on things people don’t want.

How do I get empathy?

While it helps to start with a humble and curious personality, the empathetic mindset takes hard work and time to develop. The good news is that it can be trained into the ethos and processes of an organization and its leadership.

Most empathy training, like this Financial Post article, is good but seem kind of obvious.

That said, I’ll reveal my favorite of the obvious tips.

Learn to be an active listener. That’s the first step to empathy. Listen really well. Listen when you’re in a conversation, of course, but it’s also broader than that. Listen to people’s actions. When you’re at the DMV or the farmer’s market or a football game, put your phone away, watch, listen, and reflect. Listen well, and you’ll start to see things from other points of view. You will begin to build empathy.

Ask good questions and then sincerely digest their responses. Ask your customers, employees, donors, and friends to give you candid feedback about your model, strategies, practices, and even your character. And then close your mouth, open your mind, and listen carefully. Conduct qualitative research and create 360-degree channels for employee feedback. Watch the way people respond to your product or service.

Empathy done right is listening to the one while remembering the many. It’s walking a mile in someone else’s shoes and saying, “I wonder how many other people wear these shoes.”


P.S. Update on the two Zoom-based classes I told you about last week… Starting September 15, I’ll be teaching a Cornerstone Coaching bootcamp for executive coaches who want to build a more profitable and impactful coaching practice. Over 4 months, I’ll download my 3 decades of experience with you and a handful of other coaches through highly interactive virtual discussions. To learn more about this opportunity, as well as my upcoming course on The Five Tasks, fill out this form to get notified when the bootcamp registration is live.

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