The capacity to understand or feel what others experience AKA ’empathy’ isn’t usually a word that’s associated with business but it should be because good bosses know that empathy is one of the best management tools they have.
But Michael Ventura, author of Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership (Touchstone), publishing this week, believes this word is one that can help us better connect to clients, attract the right talent, ignite a spirit of creativity and identify opportunities for growth and there are three definitive ways to up your empathy quotient.
I’m a big proponent of this word and consider it a mantra in all of my interactions, whether I’m interviewing someone who may not be as media-trained as a corporate bigwig or a vendor helping me sort out a billing issue.
That’s why I really wanted to speak with Ventura, an entrepreneur and creative director who founded Sub Rosa, a strategy and design practice, in 2009. He considers it his mission to demonstrate the ways in which empathy–the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes–can be the key to your company’s innovation, growth and success.
“Empathy isn’t about being nice and it’s not about pity or sympathy either,” Ventura says. “It’s about understanding–your consumers, your colleagues and yourself–and it’s a direct path to powerful leadership.”
How to Step Up Your Empathy
To put yourself on that path, solicit feedback on your own leadership and create moments where you and your team can talk candidly about their needs and how they best thrive.
“Until we make an investment in ourself and the people we work with, we are at a disadvantage,” Ventura says. “Candid conversation, thoughtful listening, self-observation and a willingness to improve/evolve our approach as we grow are all key factors in delivering empathic leadership to our organizations.”
In looking back at the work he has done with his clients over the years, Ventura says that his best work was done when he and his principals were at their most empathetic selves.
“We got out of our own shoes and met with the people with whom the work intersected, whether that was consumers, partners or shareholders,” says Ventura whose firm counts among its clients a variety of Fortune 500 companies (GE, Google, Nike), the United Nations, the Obama Administration and start-ups like Warby Parker.
And, like any good coach knows, the way you get the most out of your players is by knowing how to inspire and motivate them, Ventura says.
“Some may benefit from instruction, while others thrive on pressure,” he says. “Great leaders take the time to truly understand their teams and bring forth leadership that matches their needs and aligns to the overall goals of the company.”
The ability to apply empathy and understand the ways in which it applies to leadership and staffing decisions is ‘where the rubber meets the road,’ Ventura says.
This means looking deeply at company values, the ways teams are structured, the way meetings are run and the way products are developed.
Focus on the Four Ps
“Everything that is core to your business can be considered,” he says. “We typically bundle these into four ‘Ps’ – people, processes, principles and product/service. Taking that empathic point of view that you’ve unearthed in your research and conversations can help to infuse these core pillars of the business with more meaning.”
Best of all, even the most cynical hardwired entrepreneurs can learn to be more empathic but there is one caveat: “Empathy is a muscle like anything else and if you don’t use it, it will atrophy,” Ventura emphasizes.
And, ironically, empathy begins with a look in the mirror.
Ventura stresses that it’s key to find ways to get out of your own perspective every day. This includes talking to people who are unlike you on your team.
“Journaling, meditation or other forms of self-reflection are key tools that you can use to better understand your own personal biases,” Ventura says. “This can also help you come to grips with your own limitations while still leading with confidence and empathy.”
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