Empathy: the most valuable attribute

Learning empathy can help you recognise your own strengths, weaknesses, and feelings. Your emotions influence the people around you, so it's often necessary to self-regulate your internal feelings. If you show drive, achievement, loyalty, optimism and empathy, others cannot help but notice your leadership skills.

Reflecting upon my career as a challenger, innovator and leader, I can safely say that no single idea or business strategy has generated the sort of power that empathy delivers. Empathy transcends leadership, culture, marketing and innovation, as the key driving force in today’s communications ecosphere. Whilst I understand the principle of empathy may not align perfectly with the narcotic culture of aggressive growth, the reality is, that for sustainable success and stability, leaders have to really know what their colleagues, employees, and customers feel. This is no longer negotiable.

what empathy is and isn’t

Empathy is routinely misused as a synonym for recognising an individuals point-of-view. Derived from the Greek words em and pathos, it literally means into feeling’. As a result, empathy is the process of identifying with the psychological feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another person. In this regard, true empathy is all about being able to walk in other’s shoes and feel exactly what they feel. Yet while we recognise empathy as the cornerstone of emotional and social intelligence, many people still don’t understand how it relates to their personal effectiveness. To the contrary, the expression of empathy is typically thought of as something that primarily benefits others. Used regularly, empathy is a powerful and life-changing trait connecting you to other people ‘s intensity and commitment to a cause.

wired to feel

Fortunately, we’ve evolved in such a manner that we’re chemically rewarded when we extend consideration beyond ourselves. The chemical currency of empathy is controlled by 4 neurotransmitters working together and producing feelings of success, personal satisfaction, happiness, and trust. These are Serotonin, Dopamine, Endorphins, and Oxytocin. These chemicals not only makes us feel good but also drive survival skills. Dopamine and Endorphins control selfish activities. They mask pain, generate stamina to complete a goal and give that warm flush of reward when it’s mission accomplished. Oxytocin and serotonin, however, control the more selfless functions imperative to species survival. Serotonin stimulates the feeling of pride when others show respect or perhaps when we receive recognition for our efforts, whilst Oxytocin promotes the longer term effects of trust and empathy. The truth is, Oxytocin is what keeps everything in control. The more we experience empathy and trust, the more Oxytocin flows and reinforces these bonds and, in turn, keeps selfish pleasure, arrogance, and pride in check. In a nutshell, empathy begets empathy.

lessons from the past

There are countless examples of failed and fractured business decisions because of leaders not taking into account the true feelings of stakeholders, customers, and staff members. Whilst decisions are made after weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the situation, staff members and customers’ points-of-view tend to be relegated as just another pro or perhaps con.

Blockbuster Video seriously miscalculated how its audience would respond to Netflix and didn’t rise to the challenge. Management clearly didn’t empathise with its audience and thought its billion-dollar empire was immune from competition. The company disappeared almost overnight.

More recently, the story of HR SaaS company&amp Zenefits and its mismanagement paints a vivid picture of executive hubris, greed, and arrogance. Parker Conrad, founder and former CEO, created a culture focussed on winning at any cost. Empathy was practically non-existent preferring to run a company on questionable morals and social irresponsibility. The highlight was software developed intentionally to help salespeople circumvent mandatory insurance license training. Eventually, Parker and most of the executive team were replaced, 250 salespeople were let go, and Zenefits is now in the process of a cultural and operational restructuring.

leading with empathy

Self-awareness is essential for true leadership, but leadership comes with additional requirements you’ve got to really feel what others feel to steer the decision-making process in the proper direction. It is undeniable that leaders need to make difficult choices, however, when you feel other people ‘s emotions, you empower better decision making. Real leaders listen far more than they speak.

Some of the tangible benefits you can expect include: Building trust in all business interactions

  • Understanding customer behaviour and the power of shared emotions
  • Build better support systems for customers and employees
  • Strengthening collaboration skills
  • Opening people to new ideas
  • Knowing the way to inspire people to achieve company goals
  • negotiating and Resolving disagreements more quickly and more effectively
  • Changing gears if the story in your mind does not match other people’s perceptions

If you come away from this post with just one thing, I trust it is the ability to feel enthusiastic about empathy in your everyday interactions. Having said that, I recognise it’s a challenge for many executives and entrepreneurs to show empathy due to its perception as a weakness. The common rationale of it’s not personal; it’s just business is a terrible cliche that thought leaders and forward-feeling people know to be false. All business decisions affecting others generate deeply personal consequences. Disgruntled staff members, dissatisfied customers, and cheated associates invariably take matters personally.

Learning empathy can help you recognise your own strengths, weaknesses, and feelings. Your emotions influence the people around you, so it’s often necessary to self-regulate your internal feelings. If you show drive, achievement, loyalty, optimism and empathy, others cannot help but notice your leadership skills.

challenge yourself

Challenging prejudices and discovering commonalities are among empathy’s most powerful business benefits. Develop a habit of genuine interest and asking questions about others without becoming overly intrusive. The most important skill for developing empathy is challenging your own preconceptions. Look for commonalities that allow you to truly feel what others feel. You will have to listen actively to what people point out to make certain you know what they are really saying. The show Undercover Boss works because bosses really get chances to feel how their employees feel, and people connect with that idea because so many of them feel unappreciated and neglected.

Brand 101: Empathy Inside Marketing strategy has undergone a groundbreaking transformation in the digital age. Customers that are members of digital communities of like-minded peopled are now in control of the process. People expect personal messages and interactions when they visit a business website. The times of hard transactional selling are over, and people ignore heavy-handed promotions. Some even install adblockers! as a result, messages have to be more carefully crafted and targeted to key groups. Blanket media advertising has given way to personalised marketing based on persona and purchasing habits. It’s obvious that empathy is a powerful tool when planning modern marketing strategies. When you develop empathy as a passive trait, you naturally put your audience first.

feeling innovation

Amazon built an empire by empathising with consumers. Success in business involves fulfilling needs, and you cannot do that unless you understand exactly how others feel. companies that are Successful use all their resources to learn about their customers, employees, shortcomings and opportunities. Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. True innovation comes from identifying people’s needs from their emotions and providing products and services that fulfil these emotional needs.

Real innovation doesn’t involve making quick fixes. You’ve got to go much deeper to find the burning issue and come up with innovations that address what people actually feel. Using empathy to guide you in design thinking can generate huge rewards even when the development process is costly and subject to bad starts.

oxytocin storytelling

Storytelling in its many forms, not just improv, can be an incredibly powerful tool for gaining new perspectives and creating shared understanding. Storytelling with empathy can be especially valuable in business because, when you’re in tune with others’ needs, you can better serve them as customers, be a better leader, and design better products and services.

Content marketing has become a significant strategy for savvy marketers, and savvy content goes beyond traditional brand promises. It’s important to offer your customers insights that satisfy their deepest interests, and empathy empowers the process. You’ve got to put your audience first by understanding people’s emotional quotient. In effect, you’ve got to communicate with your audience, show them behind-the-scenes stories and engage them emotionally. Obviously, you have got to understand your customers and the way they perceive your business story. Ultimately your brand is really what they feel. The most successful marketers look beyond the obvious characteristics of demographic and focus on innovative strategies that engage emotions and celebrate each person as an individual.

Empathetic stories are, at their core, human

The robots haven’t won yet. In business, we interact with humans on so many levels and in so many ways. More than ever, success often hinges on developing and prioritizing empathy as a skillset and a mindset. Stories are a great way to get there.

Maybe your team is frustrated or has lost their connection with the purpose of their work. Perhaps you’d like to improve a relationship with a client or stakeholder. Maybe you’re looking for a new perspective to solve a design problem or improve customer service. Stories are a good place to start to generate empathy and create a better understanding of the human beings we interact with.

Science, technology, good sense and concern for others unite when thought leaders embrace leadership culture empathy. Empathy powers innovation solves business problems and raises your value with key stakeholders. That is why the savviest leaders try to read other people’s feelings before starting any new business or introducing new products. I can ask just one thing of people who would like to be successful in business or become thought leaders in the age of real-time communication: Internalise the value of empathy and add it to your core feelings. You cannot use empathy successfully unless you genuinely feel its value.

There are no easy answers for how to elevate one ‘s consciousness and empathetic response. What I can say is that through daily choices of behaviour and mindset, anyone can rewire their brain towards empathy. As with everything, we need to take a multi-faceted approach. Rigorous mindfulness training, meditation, and giving back through altruistic behaviour and volunteering go a long way.

Sometimes, just a simple ‘hey, are you ok?’ is all you need. Let’s start today.

If you could do with some help, WINC consultants really shine in project engagement. We pride ourselves on being our clients’ most valuable partner in the attraction, retention and engagement of their current and future staff members. We offer quality end-to-end strategies and solutions including resource management, hr operations and change communications. Find out more about what we’re up to on the WINC website – and keep up-to-date with our latest news & views on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter.

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about the author

Portrait of Karl Wood with circle frame.

Karl Wood is a global HR and employment professional who has an impeccable record in delivering HR solutions for industry leading firms. Known for his characteristic creativity, Karl champions ideas that promote growth, profit and a positive organisational identity.