Empathy in Business
MAR 22, 2013 @ 01:40 PM 12,027
Empathy in Business:
Indulgence or Invaluable?
In a world where we tend to think of business in terms of the bottom line and financial metrics, a discussion of the role of empathy in business seems like an indulgence. But is it really an indulgence, or is it a marketplace imperative instead?
There is growing evidence that organizations that have happy employees, strong organizational health, empathetic leaders, and maybe even a social mission, outperform their peers (see, for example, the study of more than 600 companies showing that those with organizational health in the top quartile registered two times higher financial performance: “Beyond Performance” by Scott Keller and Colin Price). Many corporations—including household names Google and General Mills and Shell—are embracing employee leadership programs based on meditation and mindfulness practices.
With the conversation around business performance changing and evolving to include elements of emotional intelligence, it should come to no surprise that four sector leaders came together last week to discuss empathy in business.
On the panel were:
- Angel Cabrera – President of George Mason University
- Bill Drayton – CEO and founder of Ashoka: Innovators for the Public and former director at McKinsey & Co.
- Carly Fiorina– CEO of Carly Fiorina Enterprises and former CEO of HP
- Julie Rogers – President and CEO of the Eugeneand Agnes E. Meyer Foundation
The panel was moderated by Jonathan Aberman, Managing Director of Amplifier Ventures, and presented in association with Arlington Economic Development.
With panellists bringing in different flavours and viewpoints based on their experience, beliefs, and values, three principal themes guided a good part of the discussion.
Why we should talk about empathy in business
President Cabrera often challenges graduating MBA students to capture the essence of a business with a simple question: What is a business? To his dismay, most students respond that a business is a function where money goes in and more money comes out. Cabrera sternly corrects them. His answer: “At its very heart, a business is the beauty of bringing together people and things to make the community better off—these are the businesses we admire. Empathy is the one tool that makes it all happen.”
And according to Jonathan Aberman, the most important characteristic in an entrepreneur is empathy. As he shared during the Q&A session, “Start-up founders must have empathy and the ability to see the world around them and adapt.”
True leadership requires empathy. “Leadership is not about titles and positions,” said Carly Fiorina. “There are people with no titles who lead every day. … Leadership is about making a positive difference and you cannot do that without empathy.”
Why empathy is important now and will be increasingly valuable in the future
We are living in a world that, more and more, is driven by rapid change. In Bill Drayton’s perspective, we are living a transition from an industrial era characterized by repetition for performance into a world that is fundamentally different than it was even half a century ago—a world in which every individual needs to be a changemaker.
“You cannot afford to have anyone on your team who isn’t a changemaker … and one of the qualities you need as a changemaker is empathy,” Drayton said. Drayton also shared his vision for a “fluid, open, team of teams,” where each employee has both the skills to identify opportunities and to solve problems, as the emerging organizational format for this era, as well as the departure from monolith-type corporations. “Change begets change … and the world we are going to is better,” he said.
How empathy can be cultivated
The general thought was that while we all have this innate ability, active empathy can actually be developed. Both Drayton and Cabrera engaged in a discussion about today’s young people and the need to cultivate empathy at all levels of schooling, starting with the elementary level. Julie Rogers warned that “we do not reward empathy in the way we create games for children.”
Fiorina focused on big businesses, where she says “it may be difficult to have empathy when people may be disconnected from each other and the outside world.” She believes, however, that organizations must have enlightened leaders that teach and exemplify empathy.
There was agreement that the best way to cultivate empathy is through experiential immersion. Panellists shared examples of such programs developed at George Mason University (like New Century College) and by Ashoka Fellows (like Mary Gordon), and therefore a growing knowledge of how to train and develop empathy.
The question remains, what is next? Will we embrace the potential of empathy as a foundational element for better business, team and individual performance, or will we continue to look at it as a mere indulgence, a soft skill, a “nice-to-have” attribute?
For its part, Ashoka, together with a growing network of social entrepreneurs, businesses, and schools, is working to make sure empathy is more than a passing fad. It recently launched the Start Empathy initiative to both demonstrate how important empathy is and to highlight ways of cultivating it effectively—in our schools, our homes, and our communities.
But as the panellists reminded us, everyone can play a part in reinforcing and rewarding empathy starting today through the decisions we make, including who we choose to do business with.
This post was written by Monica Tanase-Coles, who works with Ashoka on strategies for amplifying empathy in the business world. A physicist by training, Monica was previously a management consultant with McKinsey & Co. in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
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