Business Empathy

The CEO of a large computer systems sales company in Omaha was set to address a recently hired sales force. Naturally, the new recruits were nervous and insecure. So the orientation was intended to help the recruits build confidence. After all, confidence was a key component of a successful sale.

In the past, this company’s new hires heard speeches about how tough they had to be. Yet recently, management had noticed the talk had the exact opposite effect. After these pep talks, the new staff often asked themselves whether they had the “right stuff.” Far from bolstering their confidence, the speeches dampened it.

So with this latest crop of hires, the CEO tried a new approach. This time, she spoke of her own struggles as a new sales person. She talked of her own insecurity upon being hired, and how long it took to feel confident. She talked about the strategies she developed to handle rejection, and reminded them that the training they received was good.

She told the truth. She said that while the training that staff received was good, success was not guaranteed. She told them bluntly that sometimes people don’t make it past the second year.

Her candor brought an interesting response from her audience: a standing ovation. And later, the company’s retention and productivity rates were considerably higher.

Why did the CEO’s personal openness lead to these business successes? Because she used business empathy. She was aware of other people’s perspectives, thoughts and feelings and communicated that understanding.

The ability to be empathic does not turn an individual into a touchy- feely, indecisive or weak leader. Nor does it create insincere managers who claim to “feel your pain”.

On the contrary, an empathic leader anticipates the reactions of others to initiatives, understands what motivates people and what gets in their way, helps them avoid unnecessary conflict, reduce time spent on the wrong issues and get to the heart of the matter.

We have observed that empathic leaders get the job done more efficiently, confront problems more openly, and offer feedback more easily and promptly. These leaders receive more respect and loyalty than their counterparts who aren’t empathic.

That’s because they make an effort to listen and convey they’ve heard and understood, without trying to fix the problem or the feelings of the colleague.

It is not an easy skill to master, since many leaders are task-oriented. A “buck-stops-here” mindset makes fixing stuff come naturally to most leaders. But fully listening, comprehending then collaborating to find a solution takes discipline.

Empathy helps people feel heard, validated and understood. This results in increased interest in collaboration, and more creativity. Trust is heightened and people feel important and appreciated.

Leaders who lack empathy tend to have staff who feel ignored, disrespected, unimportant, misunderstood and reluctant to address issues with them, especially issues crucial to business success. Often, people distance themselves from these types of leaders, blocking communication. These leaders feel isolated, while generating anger and hurt in others. They foster dependency, insecurity and low worker esteem.

Increasing empathy skills takes effort but it’s worth the work. Here are some do’s and don’ts of empathic leadership:

Don’ts of Business Empathy

1. Unsolicited Advice- Don’t Worry, Be Happy
Being empathic means resisting the urge, however well intended, to give advice. Advice giving is not problem solving. Advice giving makes people feel frustrated and helpless. Giving advice usually stems from wanting to be helpful but not knowing how. Saying “Try reading- such and such a management text; it’ll help you with that personality clash you’re having” will not result in feelings of being understood. The net effect is a communication shut down.

2. Denial- No Problem
In a harried workplace, it’s tempting to try to make challenges disappear. But most issues don’t just go away. You’ll spot denial if you hear yourself or someone else saying, “He probably didn’t mean it” or “It’s no big deal” or “They’ll do better next month, I don’t need to talk to them about it”.

3. False Reassurance- There, there…
Rather than listen, understand and then communicate the understanding, some leaders try to comfort with platitudes. In business, people rarely respond well to platitudes. Saying “Don’t worry, you’ll figure it out” to an overwhelmed colleague or subordinate makes people feel unsupported and patronized.

4. Uncomfortable Silence
Faced with a tense situation, some leaders sit in an awkward silence, squirming until they have an excuse to leave or someone else steps in. Sometimes the leader’s colleague or subordinate will even come to the leader’s aid by ending the conversation and leaving. The natural conclusion – “I’ll never bring that up again” – hobbles communication in the organization.

5. Interrogation- Just the facts…
Believing fact finding alone will help, leaders grill workers relentlessly. “Why do you think that? What other ways could you do it?” “Why didn’t you do it that way?” While obtaining information is important, foregoing listening in favour of pressing an agenda or not communicating an understanding of the person’s dilemma causes people to feel chastised.

The Do’s of Business Empathy

1. Listen
Sound simple? It is amazing how little we truly listen to each other. Listening takes time. Leaders are amazed at how often they are formulating an answer or question before a colleague or worker has uttered even three words.

2. Understand
Leaders can identify the thoughts and feelings they hear. Watch body language, facial expression and the implicit messages in what people say. The amount of data available about what people are thinking, feeling and what is motivating them is astounding when the time is taken to notice.

3. Communicate Your Understanding
It’s not enough for leaders to think they’ve got the main message. The next step is to demonstrate it. The best way is to respond with a summary of what you’ve heard. “Echoing back” what you’ve heard verifies what the other person is saying. Responding with “Let me see if I get what you mean” or “The challenge you face seems to be…” is effective.

4. Empathic Problem Solving
Once the leader has a good grasp of the situation, adding an even deeper understanding will promote an exploration of the issue and true problem resolution can occur. A statement like “You feel discouraged and let down when technical support doesn’t come through post-sale”, starts a deeper conversation. Colleagues or employees often elaborate on the issue, saying “Yes, exactly and I’ve talked to them about it and they don’t do anything”. The leader can respond empathically again, “Sounds like you’re exasperated with them because you can’t get the job done without them.” “Yeah, we’re supposed to be in this together and I might as well be from Planet X to those guys.” The leader can respond, “Seems as though, it’s kind of lonely doing sales with no back-up” After a long pause, the worker says, “It’s hard, because I sell what the customer wants and then I can’t deliver.”

“You get embarrassed out there if you don’t come through”. Another long pause. After thinking a bit the employee says, “That’s right, definitely.I think I’ll talk to them again, but this time before the sale, see if they can do what the customer wants and when, get them on board more before the sale is finalized.”

Business empathy takes time to learn, practice and master. It requires listening skills, observation skills, a good emotion-word vocabulary and self-awareness. Being empathic means being willing to make mistakes while guessing how people feel, sometimes getting teased and occasionally experiencing discomfort.

So why bother?

Because as Vince Lombardi, famous coach of the Green Bay Packers, said, if you play “with a lot of head and a lot of heart, (you’re) never going to come off the field second”.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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