The power of empathy in business

Peter Wood explains why empathy is seen as an essential and important quality in today’s leaders.

Empathy is one of those things we see mentioned and talked about a lot on LinkedIn. I thought I’d write about it, but then realised I needed to check out a definition of its precise meaning. I was glad I did – there are at least two ways of looking at empathy – “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others’ emotions and “Cognitive empathy,” sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to our ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions.

So why is empathy seen as an essential and important quality in today’s leaders? Having a developed sense of empathy helps us see and understand an issue or problem from another’s perspective. It may not help us find a solution to the issue, but a developed sense of cognitive empathy will help us assess solutions from another’s viewpoint, and help us intuitively understand if a proposed, potential solution will be acceptable to that other person.

“You – the business owner – do not have all the good ideas and your perspective is not the only one. But allowing diversity and inclusivity requires that you also listen to the viewpoint of others – not just listen, but understand it, respect it and take their viewpoint into account when you make decisions”

Even if you can’t solve the problem or find an acceptable solution, having empathy means that the team member has understood that you are aware of their perspective and feelings, and even if you don’t find a solution, the act of switching perspective and showing awareness of their viewpoint, feelings and emotions helps build the essential ingredient of trust within a team.

I don’t believe empathy is a necessary quality of a leader in a short-term or crisis situation. It is however, an essential ingredient in sustainable business and longer term projects, and it is a necessary element to ensure a team works on trust, believes in the leader’s vision, and operates cohesively as a unit. In a team built on trust, the members of that team must allow the leader to make decisions on behalf of them all, and to ensure cohesiveness, the team needs to believe that the decision maker HAS understood their perspective and WILL take their future feelings into account.

Culture of trust

Empathy is often misunderstood as kindness. We’d all like our bosses to be kind and considerate towards us, but the reality is that in a dynamic, fast moving business environment, the essential requirements from a leader are honesty and integrity, not kindness. That doesn’t mean that those qualities can’t be delivered without consideration and respect for who we are and what we do. And it’s a culture of trust, responsibility and accountability that allow those elements of consideration and respect for others to grow and flourish.

I have always believed that there are two types of boss. There is the empathetic leader who shows understanding towards you, works to gain an awareness of the issues facing you, and supports you to help you find solutions and resolve those issues.

The other one is the dictatorial boss – he only wants the job done to his benefit, and has no interest or concern in developing you and allowing you to grow.

I’ve seen both, and I’ve seen at first hand how empathetic bosses can set culture and encourage growth within an organisation.

I always remember my first morning in my first real job as a sales person. It was a few minutes before 9, and I was standing awkwardly in the sales office as the rest of the team arrived and took their desks. The CEO of the company came into the office, sought me out, came over and shook my hand. “Good morning”, he said. His next words to me were memorable. “Peter, when you are in this company I want you to make sure you do one thing”. I wasn’t sure what he was going to say next, so I waited expectantly. “I want you to make sure you enjoy your time with us” were his words to me. I’ll never forget that introduction, and I have come to believe that once any one of us has experienced that type of welcome in an organisation, it places an onus on us to perpetuate that culture and treat others that work for us with the same respect and consideration.

I worked with an inspiring chief executive a number of years ago. He listened to his staff, viewed issues from their perspective, and helped them to find their own solutions to their challenges. He also encouraged his staff to listen to the company’s customers, view issues from their perspective, and encouraged staff and clients to work together to find solutions to common challenges.

As a result of listening to his staff who in their turn had listened to customers, he knew exactly what was going on, and was able to make well-informed and balanced decisions on behalf of the organisation.

He was recently replaced by a ‘Boss’ – one who thought it was his role to tell his staff what to do. Because of his inability to listen to his staff, he was unable to fully understand the nuances of the challenges facing the organisation, and as a result, was seen as an irrelevant leader.

Diversity matters

We live in an increasingly diverse society, and I have a deep belief that our businesses and organisations need to reflect that diversity and provide inclusivity for those of different backgrounds.

From a purely practical point of view, if you want to deal with a diverse society, your internal business team needs to reflect that external diversity. And bringing individuals of differing viewpoints and differing backgrounds can bring creativity and a different, but potentially constructive, way of looking at issues and finding creative solutions.

You – the business owner – do not have all the good ideas and your perspective is not the only one. But allowing diversity and inclusivity requires that you also listen to the viewpoint of others – not just listen, but understand it, respect it and take their viewpoint into account when you make decisions.

I’ve being writing about empathy as a key element in leadership and teamwork within an organisation, but extending that culture of empathy can bring wider benefits.

Empathy sells

I have a belief that one of the most important qualities a sales person can have is the ability to understand a potential buyer’s motivation.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are car sales person, and a prospective new customer wanders into your showroom one afternoon and starts browsing your models – ask yourself – Why is he buying? Has his old car just broken down and he needs ANYTHING to get him in and out of work? Has she a growing family of kids and now needs a larger 4×4 to bring them to school, soccer and swimming? Or has she just won the lottery, and now wants to buy that sports car she’s always dreamed about?

Understanding why a customer might want to buy helps a sales person develop the conversation, and move the potential sale along the road to conclusion.

Empathy plays a large part in understanding that motivation. I believe that empathy is an essential part of developing relationships, and is an essential skill for any young, ambitious sales person to grow and develop within themselves.

And keep this in mind: if you, the business owner, don’t develop a cultural of empathy, consider how that can have a negative effect on your sales staff and the development of relationships with YOUR clients.

Peter Wood
Peter Wood is the owner of Iridium Management. He has many years’ experience in business, and uses his knowledge and skill to help companies find a path to growth and success. His passion is mountaineering, and he uses some of the lessons learnt on adventures to inspire leadership in organisations, and to encourage teams to focus, collaborate and work effectively together.