Is there ROI in Empathy?
During the week of September 13, 2020, the word “empathy” appeared in more Google searches than at any time since Google began publishing the data in 2004. Nearly two months later, the week of November 29, “empathy” hit a 15-year high for searches of business content on Google.
There’s no doubt that over the last year, society generally and business leaders specifically have had a renewed focus on the role of empathy. And for good reason. Our country, communities, companies and employees have faced one challenge after another, including a global pandemic, startling examples of racial inequity, political strife and unprecedented wildfires and smoke congestion. These events have disrupted our core values, relationships and routines.
Many businesses and business leaders have responded with an empathy-centric approach. They’ve invested in better understanding their employees’ experiences and responding with programs to better support them. At our company, we hosted listening sessions with employees, expanded our wellness programs, created a stimulus program for employees and local businesses and implemented more frequent and more personal venues for communication. We’re not alone, and organizational changes like these have helped businesses, teams and individuals navigate the challenges and crises of the last year.
Now, as the pandemic’s hold on our country lessens, business leaders are talking about “getting back to normal.” For many, this means putting the empathy-inspired programs they and their teams developed on the shelf until the next crisis comes our way.
But doing so would be a mistake. Over the last year, we’ve learned more than just how to weather another crisis. We’ve learned how to build a better company. And we’ve learned that empathy needs to be at the center of it.
Personal empathy means having the ability to see and experience things from another person’s perspective — to “walk in another person’s shoes,” as the saying goes. Organizational empathy means that a business is intrinsically curious about the condition and experiences of its stakeholders (primarily customers and employees), seeks to understand those experiences in a personal way and measures success by its ability to improve them.
Viewed in this way, empathy can be a powerful catalyst for organizational growth and success on multiple dimensions, including:
As the field of design thinking and others have illustrated, breakthrough ideas often start from a simple premise: intimately understanding customers’ pain points and having a passion for helping customers solve them. Establishing empathy as a cultural pillar encourages employees to view the business and their work from an outside-in perspective, infusing it with insights and ideas drawn from the needs and goals of customers, partners and even competitors. It also enables employees to build technology that’s more personal, predictive and tailored to customers’ unique needs.
Sales and service
An empathetic approach to sales or customer service means deeply understanding a particular prospect or customer’s needs, embracing them as your own and working collaboratively to solve them. This form of empathy builds trust, fosters more open communication and enables employees to more rapidly solve objections or concerns and build longer-lasting relationships.
Empathy can be a powerful foundation for success with internal stakeholders as well. Engaging and empowering a team starts with understanding their day-to-day experiences, committing to make them better and opening lines of communication to continuously test how the organization is doing. Even on the front end of the employee experience — in the hiring process — understanding a candidate’s objectives and how the organization can support them from the candidate’s perspective is an exercise in empathy that can change the trajectory of an employee’s growth and success.
Like everything, if taken to extremes, empathy can be problematic. In her book Radical Candor, Kim Scott popularized the concept of “ruinous empathy” in working relationships. Similarly, organizational empathy poses risks, too.
For instance, relying solely on empathy could lead an organization to over-index on a particular stakeholder’s needs, prioritizing a compelling individual story over the needs of the group. That problem is exacerbated by the fact that we are most empathetic to those we have the most in common with. The day my first child was born, for example, I became much more sensitive to the pain of other parents whose children had faced tragedy. Our tendency to empathize with those who are similar to us risks creating an echo chamber or undermining efforts to expand diversity, equity and inclusion.
Empathy can also be personally and organizationally exhausting. As the pandemic unfolded and our small business clients faced unprecedented challenges, we encouraged our employees to spend extra time with customers to understand and address their needs on multiple levels. Although employees and customers alike felt empowered by this experience, many of our customer-facing employees also felt emotionally drained by the experience.
That these risks exist isn’t a reason to steer clear of developing cultural empathy. Instead, they are a testament to its power. The key is balance. Organizational empathy needs to be balanced against the organization’s values and strategy, so it doesn’t overwhelm the organizational agenda. Organizational empathy also needs to be complemented with processes for taking action and getting support, so employees have an outlet for turning their experiences into positive action.
At Mineral, we’ve translated some of the practices we developed over the last year into long-term practices designed to heighten our organizational empathy. For instance, we now start every new product spotlight with a deeper understanding of the customer persona we’re trying to influence, we provide coaching on how to make one-to-ones more meaningful and we’re designing products to provide a more personal and predictive experience tailored to each customer’s specific needs.
These are the lessons that the last year have brought to the forefront, and they extend well beyond navigating a pandemic. When business leaders build cultural empathy within the context of their values, strategy and processes, they will better attract, engage and retain employees, while also building more valuable relationships with customers and external communities. And in the process, they improve growth, innovation and, yes, their bottom lines.