Empathy: Challenge Traditional Wisdom

Émilie Gauthier

February 21st, 2019

Empathy is not about asking for solutions. Empathy is about taking the time to understand someone else’s needs and feelings. It is about challenging the truths you think are true.

As I was developing content for this website, I thought a lot about the core principles behind the work I do. What rules am I always promoting and following to make sure that projects are successful not only for the project sponsors, but for all the stakeholders involved? The key elements always go back to listening, conversing, connecting, being authentic, and ultimately, being empathetic to others.

When you think of it, how can you successfully develop the right products/services or implement changes without observing, talking to, and listening to your target audiences while keeping an open mind and the right level of intellectual curiosity to challenge the “truths” you think are true?

In organizations, we sometimes (often) have accumulated biases and paradigms over time, and this can lead to wrongly interpreting needs. We therefore try to solve the wrong problem. For this reason, we need to take the time to reset/update our memories and our truths, especially when we have gotten further away from the front line and our audiences over the years.

Empathy is not about asking for solutions. Empathy is about taking the time to understand someone else’s needs and feelings. “Empathy is not endorsement1; it’s about recognizing that there are as many perspectives as they are actors involved. Being empathetic, taking the time to listen to someone’s point of view, needs, and expectations doesn’t mean that you promise to solve it the way that person wants, but rather that you make sure you haven’t forgotten something important about that person’s situation.

Executives (87%) and HR professionals (79%) believe that an organization’s financial performance is strongly linked to empathy in the workplace2. How could anyone be against the virtue itself? Of course, living it and demonstrating it are more complicated. It doesn’t come naturally to everybody. It can be developed with training and nourishment; it is the sum of small actions that will foster empathy among your leaders, your project sponsors/owners, and eventually, throughout your workplace.

How can you tangibly start fostering empathy in your organization?

  1. Have open discussions with your team. It should become a habit—you can only have empathy for situations you are close to3—so, stay connected.
  2. Make sure to involve the stakeholders impacted by your projects (e.g. clients, employees, colleagues from other departments) in all the phases of your strategic initiatives. They should be consulted when it comes to scoping, assessment, design, and implementation. Listen to them, understand their wants, needs, motivations, and perspectives.
  3. Adopt an open mindset; be willing to rethink, test, and learn as you develop a project. Yes, this will take more time and will slow down your delivery pace, but it will be rewarding in the long term because it will increase your stakeholders’ level of interest and commitment.
  4. Encourage diversity (age, gender, background, etc.) in your teams. Diversity of thought increases the ability to recognize different feelings, understand them, and ultimately, to demonstrate empathy.

Remember that “empathy isn’t endorsement1; so maintain the right balance4 and the managerial courage to decide what is best for your organization once all perspectives are considered. Empathy is useful to inform you, but it doesn’t replace your decision-making ability.

 

Notes:

  1. Dylan M., “Empathy is not Endorsement”, TED Talks, 2018.
  2. “Businessolver”, The State of Workplace Empathy, 2018.
  3. Bergland C., “The Neuroscience of Empathy”, Psychology Today, October 2013.
  4. Sanchez P., “The Secret to Leading Organizational Change is Empathy”, Harvard Business Review, December 2018.

 

Other references:

  1. Davis J., “Is Empathy Redundant for Successful Leadership?”, Psychology Today, November 2018.
  2. Parmar B., “The Most Empathetic Companies”, Harvard Business Review, December 2016.

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