In December 2018, Mary Gordon was invited by the Polish business journal Responsible Business – CSR Compendium to write an article about empathy in business.
The Magic Ingredient of Success – By Mary Gordon
In professional life, people are dealing with people; not workers, not customers, not hierarchy, people. The smartest professionals know that building and retaining relationships is crucial to success. It’s the connections between people which leverage ideas, build positive collaboration, and I argue (and increasingly many others) lead to greater professional and business success. And what is the conduit for connection? It is empathy.
We have been running Roots of Empathy (ROE) in classrooms for 20 years. Our school children develop the capacity to read emotional cues which helps them understand how others are feeling. They develop perspective-taking skills, the cognitive capacity they develop through guided experience with a baby and parent who visit every month. As they watch the mother and baby communicate through sounds, words, touch, all the senses, the children witness what it means to be attuned to another person. To listen. To feel with the other.
These children not only learn to have empathy for their classmates, but towards children in other classrooms, in other communities, in other countries, on other continents as they see our common humanity. They understand we all have the same feelings.
Children get it.
Adults don’t always get it. Or they forget it. The ability to attune to another person, to be able to take their perspective and understand their feelings, is a super highway of connectivity that enhances any business relationship.
It’s a competency that can’t be faked. It’s not a marketing strategy. It’s not about tapping into empathy to drive sales, or motivate teams, or keep your job.
Children can spot a phony immediately, but adults are not always as smart, often getting lost or manipulated by the intentions of others. It’s important to remember that empathy can be used positively or negatively.
Authentic dialogue is only possible where there is empathy – where people genuinely listen to each other, and have the ability to take their perspective – whether they’re colleagues or the competition.
The current state of the world is pushing people away from each other. However, I am also finding all sorts of people, from business to academia recognizing the benefits of empathy – that there is strength in it. That it is an attribute to be proud of.
There is even an annual business index of empathic companies. It is becoming a metric of success. In fact, the Lady Geek Global Empathy Index ties empathy to fiscal success.
“There is a direct link between empathy and commercial success,” wrote Belinda Parmar in Harvard Business Review last year on the release of the Lady Geek Global Empathy Index. “Businesses are more profitable and productive when they act ethically, treat their staff well, and communicate better with their customers.”
The top 10 companies in the index “increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings,” Parmar wrote. It’s not clear that those results are causal, but there’s an interesting argument to be made.
The cost of ineffective managers is in the millions of dollars according to “Empathy in the Workplace” a white paper by the Center for Creative Leadership. ”Surprisingly, ineffective managers make up half of today’s organizational management pool according to a series of studies,” the authors wrote. And they added, “Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”
The study analyzed data from more than 6,700 managers in 38 countries. It didn’t examine why empathy and effectiveness are correlated, but they surmised that empathic managers are able to build and maintain relationships, “a critical part of leading organizations anywhere in the world.”
Seems it’s a win/win proposition that deserves more research and attention.
I believe we are all pre-disposed to empathy at birth. It is the first relationship with parents which cultivates and nurtures that empathy, or allows it to fade. It can be reignited, but only through genuine and authentic relationships. We have seen almost one million children pass through our programs in 10 countries around the world, and this we know: the classrooms of today are building the human capital of tomorrow. We call this the ROI of ROE. They will be our next leaders.
What are we doing to make sure business leaders have an empathic lens that allows them to see the diversity and inclusiveness in the workplace? Empathy allows you to see inequality that might otherwise be missed. Empathic leaders are inclusive; this sets a tone of protection and support, and raises the level of interaction between staff; building social trust.
Empathy within “your” group is common, but if you have empathy for the “other”, you will be a leader. Here is the key measure: do you have empathy for your competition?
Empathic leadership increases the opportunity for interdependence. Most partnerships, mergers, acquisitions are driven by profit, but there is a space for business to cultivate a spirit of interdependence based on goodwill and contribution to the greater good. For example, the Children’s Oncology Group is a partnership of 9,000 experts in childhood cancer in more than 200 children’s hospitals. They figured out pooling their resources could do some good. Childhood cancer was virtually incurable in the 1950s, today its combined 5-year survival rate is 80%.
The sense of trust, the sense of commitment one has to the social good, the sense of engagement that one has in participatory democracy, all of these things radiate back to fiscal sustainability.
And if we look at this as a biosphere, the indicators of success are not just the stock exchange; the indicators are the social exchange. The new CEO is more Chief Empathic Officer than Chief Executive Officer. This is the new metric: empathic leadership. It’s not a weakness. It’s a strength that not only affects people; it affects professional competence and corporate success by all the standard measures.
We need to invest in ways for people to find meaning together. In terms of the bigger change, people need equitable intersections. Ideally, society would have shorter distances between haves and have nots, but it takes more than that. How are we as a society planning to build social trust? You can only build trust if you have empathy. It’s not a charitable thing – it’s an equitable thing. We can only trust the other if we understand the other.
We need to take the mystique out of difference. Empathy allows us to unpack difference as unique and interesting, not fearful. Xenophobia is causing people to retrench, causing them to hide, to put their armour on, not to be open to difference, but to be fearful of difference.
So what is the bigger change that we’re looking for? It’s a world where you have social trust; it’s a world where you live not in fear, but in peace. It reminds me of a quote from Ursula Franklin, a renowned Canadian activist who said, “Peace is not the absence of war – peace is the absence of fear.” I would add it’s the presence of justice as well. And justice is equity; the ability to engage.
That is the bigger change we’re looking for. Our policies create peaceful societies. Not just equitable legislation. Leading by example.
And that is what corporations can do. It’s about empathic leadership. With empathic leadership they can help lead this kind of civil society where difference would not mean disenfranchisement, that there would be policies and practices of business based on empathy, that there would be an understanding of the other.
It was recently reported that one of the most looked up words since Brexit and the U.S. election was “xenophobia”. If xenophobia is the question, there is no doubt that the answer is empathy.