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Courageous Empathy 2020

Building your professional life with empathy

· careerjourney

Empathy is no soft-skill. It is vital to success.

2020 (unofficially) starts today with everyone back to work after holiday breaks. It's been a busy season of mirth and merriment. But now the kids are back to school, the decorations are down (we hope), and it's time to get back to your inbox and begin your 2020 goals. Are you feeling the pressure? Or, are you invigorated and ready to hit the ground running? Regardless, most have emotions running high this time of year. Even if you feel immune, if you are going to be a good manager or a sole contributor, it takes empathy to be successful.

Empathy ~ is the ability to identify and understand another's situation, feelings, and motives.

This definition is, to some, obvious but courage is needed. To allow yourself to think of the impact you may have on someone with a simple word or action can be difficult. It can be so uncomfortable that we may pull away from practicing empathy. Sometimes we want to chalk our actions up to "it's just business." Well, in part that is true. However, what we say/do has ripples that can affect someone for many years. Sometimes empathy, as an exercised skill in business, equips us to see others as simply resources and numbers. When we begin to see them as the clients, colleagues, and the customers they are, and appreciate them for their needs and desires, they have; this is where courageous empathy leads to success.

Have you considered the application of practicing empathy in your current role? Let me highlight a few categories:

  1. Negotiation - Miller Heiman's Strategic Selling tells us that decisions in businesses come from two prevailing postulates:  a.) What is the business need? and b.) What is my personal need?  It may not surprise you that a personal need trumps any business need.  This is not because professionals are not serious about their work or organization. On the contrary, it is far more subtle, yet so important. People have motivating factors. What motivates someone drives their decision-making.  For example, your business need is wanting to reach a challenging 2020 customer retentional goal. This is real and very important to the business.  Regardless of that objective goal, the personal need for driving your performance may be subjective.  You may want to out-perform for promotion opportunities.  You may have 2 children getting close to college-age and need that annual bonus in your savings account. You may be catching-up ground on last year's missed goal. Where practicing empathy comes in is how it allow us to seek out and understand the personal need of the individual and take that into consideration during a negotiation with clients, customers, and co-workers. And to be clear, we are not luring someone based on personal needs.  Being aware of their motivation helps us to better understand them and what it is they bring with them to the workplace.
  2. Culture - The most effective teams are ones with relationships based on trust. This allows those people to have differing views that force out of the box thinking in a safe environment. If a team and/or manager has not developed this allowance for open ideas, stagnation creeps in. With empathy, all involved accept each individual's role and try to see it from their perspective.  This is where innovation is born. 
  3. Revenue - The job of a seller isn't about just providing information, it is about providing inspiration. When you see your customers as audiences of people you want to inspire, you've shifted the paradigm. You no longer seek to develop products and services to sell to your customers, you begin to create them for your customers. Empathizing from the customer's perspective allows us to put ourselves in their shoes to learn what they need.  Revenue is earned, not won.
  4. Loyalty - It's not a stretch to imagine that with empathy as a core tenant, alliances are made. These two-way relationships deepen and, frankly, customers and employees stick around. A recent study shows that 93% of employees highlight they are more likely to stay with an empathic employer.

A 2019 State of the Workplace study on empathy conducted recently shows that these are not simply soft-skills but tangible skills that provide positive outcomes to a business's bottom line.

These 2019 results demonstrate that leaders are in greater agreement than ever with their employees on the need for practicing empathy in the workplace, but crucial gaps remain between intentions and implementation. Many organizations still struggle to bring empathy to their workplaces and exhibit empathy for their employees.

To put this to the test, I recently posed this question to 20 colleagues. Based on the research that I had at hand, I already expected this would not be a startling question. I more sought an answer to how well it was being applied.

Question | In business, how do you bring empathy to the work that you do?

Of the respondents, I was not too surprised to learn that these industry leaders were concerned about their customers and colleagues by trying "not to judge someone until walking a mile in their shoes." Many felt strongly that this was the way to see another's viewpoint in order to create solutions that would ultimately help them by offering new delivery tactics in their current role when possible. This is a positive addition to the workplace. After all, our workforce is in a historic time where up to 4 generations are possibly working together (with a fifth still on pension). The "Thanks Millenials" and "OK Boomer" jabs are making news as confrontational quips. When practicing empathy, those statements can be turned around into meaningful actions as sincere messages for approval. For example, "Ok Boomer" becomes - OK, John. That is a serious life lesson. Thank you.

But there is work to be done. One respondent simply gave me a jovial response: "And an example [of empathy] would be?" I couldn't help but chuckle to myself. Clearly, this was meant as a joke, but I think we all know an individual in our workplace where that would be an honest answer. That lack of understanding is no joke. This is why we still see woman leaders struggle for positions of power in today's fortune 500 businesses; why rising healthcare costs and increases in prescription drug prices affected employees’ financial well-being, and by extension, their mental well-being and stress levels; and why generational gaps trend to derive to misunderstanding rather than diversity with harmony.

I have learned over the years it is easy to get caught up feeling empathetic towards someone's personal needs and to place them before my own ... when that is exactly not what should be done. Courageous empathy to me means knowing that no matter how deeply I understand another's plight, it is not my own. This boundary helps me to accept it as fact, then make objective decisions to find a balanced solution for both. Acknowledging your impact on another's life truly takes courage. 

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