When we think of the definitions of success in business – profitability, stock price, brand recognition – we think in terms of numbers. But what’s behind the facts and figures? The answer is relationships… with customers and with employees. And the key to success in relationships is empathy.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share another person’s feelings by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation. It is not the same as sympathy. Sympathy means feeling pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Both are noble sentiments. But empathy is harder: it requires you to be able to put yourself in another person’s shoes – and to act upon what you feel.
Whether we’re listening to a colleague propose a disruptive idea, fielding a question from a client, or negotiating with a partner across the globe, we won’t get far without the ability to see the situation from their perspective. This empathy enables us to envision innovative, personalized solutions that might never have occurred to us otherwise. And the rewards are multiple: you’ll enjoy greater business success while growing a network of coworker and customer relationships you can count on.
Industry visionaries like Virgin Group’s Richard Branson understand the value of empathy: “In business… companies that want to survive…are smart enough to know that caring and cooperation are key.” These “soft skills” are a direct line to business success. He adds, “Employing people from different backgrounds and who have various skills, viewpoints and personalities will help you to spot opportunities, anticipate problems and come up with original solutions before your competitors do.”
Empathy builds both customer and colleague satisfaction
In today’s business world, empathy is essential for winning customer loyalty. Star marketers always say “Know your audience”. Today, that audience isn’t a monolithic market segment or demographic – it’s a diverse, multilingual, socially connected, global group of individuals, each with something different to say. To reach them, you must listen closely, put yourself in their place, and ask “What problem can I solve for this particular person?” By making sure your products or services answer that question, you create long-term relationships with customers (and reap the benefits when they share their satisfaction with their networks).
Expressing empathy in the workplace demonstrates your respect for coworkers and shows that you care about them as people, not just as assets. An empathic leader can transform a group of individuals into a team and increase productivity, morale and loyalty. Rather than promoting a corrosive level of competition among employees, well-liked and respected executives foster a collaborative spirit throughout the organization. When people sense that management empathizes with them, they are motivated and inspired to give their all.
Empathy: the great equalizer
As in any relationship, the key ingredients are respect and communication. That doesn’t leave much room for big egos, and that’s the idea. In a study from Catalyst, described in Jeanine Prime and Elizabeth Salib’s Harvard Business Review Blog, researchers found that the more humility (and empathy) employees observed in their managers, the more engaged they felt. Lazlo Bock, Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations, believes that without intellectual humility and openness to the contributions of others, “you are unable to learn.”
This millennium has introduced buzzwords that change the way we do business – from e-commerce (IT rules!) to ethical trade (don’t exploit people!) to empathy (listen and learn!). It’s a variation on the golden rule – treat others the way you want to be treated, and try to see the world through their eyes. While the concept may be more abstract than traditional signs of success, the payoff is real – just ask billionaire Richard Branson.