Nice execs <do> finish first: why empathy is essential for leadership in 2022

Since the start of 2022, it’s been nigh on impossible to skim through any LinkedIn post, job advertisement or business thought-leadership piece without coming across one word: empathy. The London Business School recently identified it as one of the top qualities needed by leaders today, following on the World Economic Forum’s belief that empathy is a “must-have business strategy” that “helps create a sense of belonging, reinforcing the belief that employees’ perspectives matter”. It really is the business buzzword <du jour>.

Given the two years we’ve just been through, is it any surprise businesses are finally valuing empathy? With so many workers undergoing mental stress, burnout, financial pressures, fears about job security and the reevaluating of their jobs which has led to the Great Resignation, the need to have a humane boss who can listen to these concerns is needed now more than ever.

This article, as you might have guessed, is also about empathy. However, whereas the business world tends to use the word as a synonym for compassion or kindness, I prefer Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s definition: “… the ability to be able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and see the world the way they see it. That’s empathy.”

Nadella is right: empathy should no longer be perceived as a fluffy add-on, but as a commercial imperative. Connecting with your employees and consumers can help you intuitively understand what they really want. Do this successfully and you can make staff more productive and design products/services tailored perfectly for the explicit and implicit needs of the target market. The ability to understand needs and motivations is key and behind, for example, the intuitive design of the smartphone you’re probably reading this on right now. As Nadella says, “Our core business is connected with the customers’ needs and we will not be able to satisfy them if we don’t have a deep sense of empathy.”

It was 30 years ago when Satya started at Microsoft, and eight years ago this month [February] when he became CEO. Since then, empathy has been one of the central tenets of his business strategy. The ability to put themselves into their consumers’ shoes has turned Microsoft into a $2tn (£1tn) business; just last month [January] they reported huge profits of $18bn for the first quarter of 2021.

The problem is that most business-leaders, just like most of us, haven’t developed empathy to its full potential.

The good news is that empathy is a teachable skill (Nadella likens empathy to a “muscle that needs to be exercised”). At True & North we’ve trained countless businesses to develop their empathy which has catalysed into greater creativity and stronger business results. Here’s some things we’ve learned:

● Adopt a ‘them first, then me’ approach. Empathetic people always frame problems from the point of view of the other person. Got problems convincing employees to return to the office? Think ‘How do I make the office a place where everybody feels comfortable and ‘psychologically safe’?’ instead of ‘I must order my virtual workers back to the office now”.

Fall in love with problems, not solutions. Yes, you might have an awesome idea for a new product/service, but it won’t mean anything unless it’s directly addressing a problem your clients or staff are experiencing. Slow down and take time exploring any issues they have. You’ll be surprised at the innovative ideas that will emerge.

Walk a mile in their shoes. No shortcuts here — you need to put the legwork in to truly understand someone and this work needs to be effortful and intentional. This is about putting in deep, pre-emptive effort — the two hours work up front which means you will save two weeks work later on because you thought someone might need something they don’t. And remember to stay free of bias and pre-judgement — this is about seeing the world from the other person’s perspective so you need to leave any preconceived notions behind.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the answers. Some problems won’t have a magic silver bullet to fix them, but it doesn’t matter: a key part of being a good leader is <trust>. In the early days of the pandemic, nobody had an answer for this new mysterious menace. But those leaders who showed empathy — Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen — had lower death rates and better compliance. Why? People trusted them. Show empathy and people will trust you much more as a leader — even if you don’t have a solution.

If you’re feeling uncomfortable, you’re probably doing it right. Empathy can be hard. To truly identify with somebody, you must find common ground. This might involve sharing your own experiences of an unpleasant experience. Yes, you may feel vulnerable sharing the failure of a new product-line or your personal struggles with mental health in a company town-hall meeting or blog. But these stories resonate with the experiences of employees and consumers. As such, they’ll be much more willing to open up to you.

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