Why Empathy is Key to 21st Century Business and Why You Should Care

The top three currencies for the 21st century are trust, relationships, and community. You may have been conditioned to believe they are efficiency, productivity, and constant growth because those are the metrics most organizations focus on. This is because, in essence, we are not taught about how to connect to our deeper feelings in business. We are expected to cut them off from our business environments in the pursuit of being seen as a professional and achieving set markers of “success.”

It is widely accepted that it is uncool and unwise to bring our emotions to work. We have been told that we need to divide ourselves and split into our “professional self” and our “personal self” in order to be successful. We are tasked with attaining the mythical work-life balance and being superheros who are able to accomplish the impossible. But why, and at what cost?

While we have one of the biggest opportunities in the history of work, for example, to bring the five generations currently working side by side together in unity, it is being drummed into our psyche to further divide and segment ourselves by pitting one generation, like the Millennials, against another, like the Boomers. What this does is create further divisions, instead of finding ways to align and integrate around a shared purpose of the business. Imagine what could happen if we brought people together around key projects, regardless of what generational box they belonged to, and had them learn from each other and co-create innovative approaches that would help the organization thrive? Many European countries are starting programs that connect the generations in community instead of isolating senior citizens from the rest of society. We need to bring this wisdom to business.

And the divisions go further when one department, such as marketing, needs to fight another department, like sales, for budget and headcount instead of finding ways to align and integrate around the shared purpose of the business. Imagine what could happen if sales and marketing had a joint purpose and did not need to battle each other. The opportunities and gains would be significant.

The Myth of Best Practices

In the pursuit of efficiency, productivity, and constant growth, we have become addicted to the “quick fix,” always in search of the magic bullet or the secret sauce that someone else can bring into our organization and solve all our problems. There is a hunger to discover someone else’s best practices and bring them in so we can move faster and better. Our opportunity is to trust ourselves to dig deeper and do the work to fund the solutions that work best for us and for the organization.

But what if speed is sometimes our enemy in business? Sure, being agile is important, and we have seen many programs and even movements to help us become lean, but what if we stepped back for one minute and realized that in the pursuit of these programs, we have cut ourselves off from our core? In tracking our efficiency, productivity, and constant growth, we have too often lost sight of why we are here in the first place. And we need to integrate programs into our business flow more than leading with them and making them the new mantra or flavor of the month initiative, but that’s another story.

Why Empathy Matters More Than Ever in Business

As more people of all ages seek more meaning and purpose in their lives beyond mere materialistic gain, it will have a deep impact on the future of work and business.

Leaders will need to revisit how they lead and adopt a 21st century mindset. Here is a suggested outline for the key steps to consider when it comes to making these transitions and integrating empathy into the fabric of your organization in a deep and meaningful way.

  1. What is your biggest opportunity?

We have been conditioned to believe in business that we need to constantly fix problems, but that is a 20th century mindset that keeps us in the trap of focusing on what is broken. It forces us to be reactive and find fixes for problems. It limits our ability to perceive and pursue opportunities. How often do you or your organization invest time in examining your biggest opportunity? And not from the mindset of beating your competition, but from the mindset of asking what you can create that will set you apart in the world and draw the people who want or need to what you have to your business.

When was the last time you went out and listened to the people who matter in your business — employees, customers, partners, vendors, community members — and found out what is in their hearts and minds? Can you put yourself in their shoes and create an experience they would value? When I was an innovator-in-residence a few years ago with a large pharmaceutical company, we found that 95% of the people who designed solutions for patients never talked to a patient. Can you imagine how much shifted once they became more empathetic to the needs of the people they were designing for and started to understand their specific needs?

What are your biggest opportunities? Who do you need to start listening to? How could listening with empathy help you have breakthroughs by co-creating with these people instead of creating for them?

  1. Where are your points of integration?

It is insane that in the 21st century we have such deep divides in most organizations. We too often like to lump employees into a category called “internal stakeholders” and customers into one we label “external stakeholders.” And then we create programs for these segments, sometimes conducting surveys and pretending we have listened to the needs of its participants until we decide it’s time to conduct the next survey. During my corporate career, I witnessed countless communication and change management plans that did this, efficiently, over and over. We would set up teams to come up with fixes, but not much ever got implemented and the same issues came up year after year. Low engagement scores would get some initial attention, but most management teams did not have the skills or abilities to shift the fundamental behavior that was causing these issues in the first place.

When we have greater empathy across an organization, we can see an increase in the conversations and dialogue taking place between people. We can use approaches like Working Out Loud, where we openly share our work with others and are not secretive about what we are working on. Leaders don’t need to wait for the annual survey to find out what is on the minds of their people and customers.

We engage in this ancient practice of empathy when we care about others and their needs in a more humane way. It happens when we realize we are not too busy to take the time to listen to and exchange ideas with others. We can break down the walls of these superficial segments to bring people together around our shared purpose. Leaders can then start understanding that to be effective, words must be aligned with action. It doesn’t matter much what you say when what you do contradicts your words. How can you integrate your words with your actions?

  1. What questions do you need to ask to bring your team back together?

The 20th century leader was taught in business school to be the smartest person in the room. Our current systems teach us that to succeed we need to be the best. That is how we are currently rewarded and recognized for our contributions at work, and our conditioning is based on survival of the fittest. We spend endless hours rooting for our sports team, for example, to beat the competition and we do the same at work. In this mindset, we must win market share away from our competition, and often from our very own team mates, and success is attained by being the top performer and making it to the top of the coveted lists that garner us even more recognition. No one wants to be seen as a loser, so we keep fighting our way to the perceived top.

But the 21st century leader recognizes the increasing limitations of this system. What if we realized that these are win-lose scenarios, and that no matter how many team building events we attend, we are still expected to take someone else down to succeed? We build our teams in silos and then wonder why we can’t work effectively cross-functionally. How could we when we don’t bring our teams together and integrate?

Whenever I work with teams on building shared purpose, I get to witness firsthand how we can create a new path forward for business. And in the heart of it all is empathy, because it takes us seeing and listening to each other, and ourselves, to tap into the deeper meaning that connects us and gives us the desire to co-create.

It’s time to hit the reset button

We are ingrained into a culture of sameness in business where we are told how to structure our organizations, and even how to reinvent them. There are experts waiting to come in and do the work for us. It seems easier to put up more decorations on an already sinking ship than address the fundamental issues that need to be revealed. Doing another re-organization seems much easier than diving into the deeper purpose of the organization and realigning the structure around it, but ultimately getting clear on the purpose is what is needed for lasting change. Before we re-invent an organization, we need to know why we are doing it.

In a world where office furniture is listed as an asset and people are listed as a liability on a financial statement, we have lost common sense in remembering why we are in business in the first place. In other words, what is the purpose of our business? We are so stuck in the mantras of our brand that we have forgotten that customer service is a real act that a business must create. Did we start believing our own advertising, or are we just too scared to talk to our customers and find out what works for them and what doesn’t?

Empathy is not simply another step in a five-step process. It is fundamental to business and our communities. If we don’t realize that empathy is key to our future and that we must integrate it instead of seeing it as a step in a process, we will give in to the prevailing culture of fear, which does not serve us.

What we need to focus on is how we can contribute and write new stories for business, where people care deeply about the work they do and how they can contribute to a greater good beyond a promotion and a paycheck. When you start to break down your blind beliefs and limiting fears, you will start to uncover who you are and find others who share in your purpose.

Where do we start?

Here is the secret most people won’t tell you: the very first step we need to take when it comes to empathy is learning how to have empathy for yourself. If we can’t practice it within ourselves, how in the world can we expect to feel empathy for another being?

Business today follows the same basic patterns as society. There is a push for us to fit into a prefabricated system and not use our voice to express how we want it to look and what we stand for. We have been conditioned to win at all costs and we are starting to question why we cannot create win-win situations instead.

What happens when we realize we can choose to embark on the most important journey of our lives? What happens when we learn to tap into empathy and start listening closely to ourselves in every aspect of our lives? What happens when we start asking new questions and listening deeply to what is in our hearts and minds?

We can make business a driver of a saner and healthier world for all of us on this planet by making different choices that focus on trust, relationships, and community. It’s time to start the journey and find others on the path to regaining our collective sanity.

A version of this was first posted on Linkedin.com

Photo Credit: Bambola 2012 Flickr via Compfight cc