The Importance of Empathy

by Joe

I’ve been thinking a lot about empathy lately.  In our business at Word 4 Asia, we find that its presence is a very important predictor of success in all our relationships.  We have to have it in order to establish and nurture our client relationships and we need to exercise it throughout our entire business environment.  This is true because everything we do involves doing it with other people.  In fact, I can’t think of any enterprise – business or non-business related – that doesn’t involve people working together.  And yet, there does seem to be an marked lack of empathy in our world these days.

Empathy comes easily to many of us, but there are some people who seem to be in startlingly short supply of this critical personal asset.  Anger is a major obstacle.  So is self-protection.  If we cut ourselves off, we don’t have to feel the discomfort other people are experiencing.  

Additionally, by refusing to identify with other people’s situations, we don’t need to confront certain issues in our own lives that we may have buried.  Finally, some people fear intimacy.  Empathizing requires making ourselves vulnerable to certain degree. 

However, the benefits we enjoy by overcoming our own squeamishness to empathy make the personal risk and the hard work of doing so well worth the effort.

Successful salespeople have learned that customers will show us where their real needs are (as well as the sales opportunities).  All they have to do is ask the right questions and let their customers speak!  However, getting to ‘yes’ with prospects means that salespeople have to probe for the customer’s “pain points”.  This is more than just good sales technique; this is empathy in action.

A case in point:  Ryanair, a major European airline, had been in a sales slump for multiple quarters when their CEO, Michael O’Leary, implemented a customer service training program called “Always Getting Better”.  The program featured identifying with the real needs and frustrations of airline passengers and effecting changing in many areas of their operations.  The result?  Ryanair saw a net profit increase from €867 million to €1.24 billion (US$1.39 billion). O’Leary famously remarked, “If I’d only known being nice to customers was going to work so well, I’d have started many years ago.”  Hilarious.

“If I’d only known being nice to customers was going to work so well, I’d have started many years ago.”  

Michael o’leary; ceo, ryanair

There used to be a sarcastic joke in some business circles that went “The beatings will continue until employee morale improves.”  In today’s multi-generational workplace, lack of empathy is not supportable any more.  Good, high-performing individuals have lots of employment choices and the millennials, who represent the future of any business, vote with their feet.  Consistently.  In a recent Gallup poll, 60 percent of Millennials indicated openness to new job opportunities.  In the same study, however, only 29 percent of them reported feeling engaged at work.  That’s bad news for companies that aren’t considering company culture as they look toward future growth. Fortunately, making small, subtle shifts toward improving empathy in the culture can make a big difference.

There are many ways that organizations can let their workers know that they are valued and respected.  One way is to listen closely to how employees talk about their work. Ask them what would make their jobs easier and make them feel heard.  When they do reveal what they need and value, it’s even more important to act on that information.  Otherwise, all that has been achieved is a more frustrated workforce who feel even less valued than before.

One example that shows the value organizations receive from treating their employees with empathy is Google’s Project Aristotle.  A study Google published in 2017 showed that the company’s most important new ideas came from B-teams (teams comprised of employees other than the company’s top software programmers, scientists and engineers and so on).  These so-called “B-teams” were composed of comprised of employees who possessed a wide range of skills including: equality, generosity, curiosity toward others’ ideas, empathy and emotional intelligence. Project Aristotle revealed that when team members feel confident speaking up and know they are being heard, great ideas are born.

In 2015, a UK consulting firm created an Empathy Index of UK-based firms whose cultures ran the spectrum of low to high empathy and then ranked the firms.  Each of these firms were analyzed on the basis of financial performance.  The results are very telling.  The top 10 companies increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50 percent more earnings (defined by market capitalization).

Since empathy is a communication technique, there are a number of behaviors that management and employees can all be trained to exhibit.  These include:

Paying attention to verbal and nonverbal signs

These include posture, lack of eye contact, facial expressions and a sense of wellness or uneasiness.  (To quote Bob Dylan, ‘you don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows…’) 

Vulnerability – Team members want to know that their directors and senior management know the same thing about themselves that they know; chiefly, that they are not flawless or infallible.  Being approachable and being human is critical if we want to have open-communication in our organizations.  Remember that God came to man in human form because He wanted more communication with us! 

Less reliance on technology (texting, email, even phone) and more speaking face to face.  Too many important non-verbal cues are missed when we rely too heavily on technology.

For instance, think of facial expressions and body language, tone of voice, posture and so on. 

Word 4 Asia has been building bridges of communication in mainland China for our clients for over twenty years. As always, I welcome your comments about this blog, or anything you might have on your mind. Just drop us a line. You can reach me, Dr. Gene Wood, at gene@word4asia.com. I look forward to it!

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