Treasury Talent

Tapping into the power of empathy

Published: Nov 2021

Empathy is often misunderstood as being a sign of weakness, or being too ‘soft’ when, in fact, it actually comes from a place of strength. Leaders who learn to apply the power of empathy are more likely to be more fulfilled and successful in their roles.

Guava tree standing on a red fire hydrant

Think of a job that needs doing at work. How long will it take to complete? Will it be done at lightning speed, or at a snail’s pace? If you are a leader, and are relying on others to do the work, the difference between it being done quickly or slowly could hinge on the power of empathy.

“Empathy is the key leadership skill enabling us to really understand why people do what they do, to see the world from their perspectives and build the trusted relationships that empower people to be at their best,” says Daniel Murray, Founder and Director of Empathic Consulting.

He cites the example of Gordon Bethune, the CEO of Continental Airlines between 1994 and 2004 who was credited with rescuing the company from the brink of failure and dramatically improving morale among employees. Bethune reportedly said his experience as a plane mechanic helped him because he knew how long it took to fix a plane if he wanted to fix it. He also knew how long it took if he didn’t want to fix it. “The intangible factors of values, relationships and culture have a huge influence over whether we really want to fix the plane or not,” explains Murray.

Empathy is a key skill for leaders to understand this gap, and Murray argues it is not a nice-to-have. In fact, with leaders working across many countries – with people of increasingly diverse backgrounds – empathy is critical to long-term, sustainable performance. “Empathy is the key leadership skill to navigate this intangible world,” says Murray.

And it’s not just a key skill for leading, it’s also a way to form meaningful connections with others, says Tracy Brower, author of Secrets to Happiness at Work. “These connections can make us happier and more fulfilled in our careers because we’ll have stronger relationships with co-workers and feel a greater sense of social fulfilment,” Brower says. Also, she adds, empathy is important for success in our careers because it helps us solve problems and innovate. With design thinking – a process of designing solutions that are based around customer problems – a key ingredient is being able to empathise with the end user. “When we understand where the customer is coming from—including the internal customer of our work — we can respond most effectively to meet their needs. This will help us grow in our careers because we’ll be more effective and develop credibility for our responsiveness,” says Brower.

There are numerous other benefits – for companies and individuals – for those who harness the power of empathy. Niina Majaniemi, a keynote speaker and author, tells Treasury Today that empathy “helps grow revenue, build customer satisfaction, build employee happiness, strengthen brand, increase collaboration, survive from crisis, increase innovation and grow trust.”

As an empathy expert, Majaniemi is keen to point out what empathy is and isn’t, and is keen to bust the myths around it. The most common myths, she says, are that empathy is only about being nice, or that empathy is a sign of weakness. “These myths can’t be further from the truth,” she says.

This echoes a quote from New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that has been doing the rounds on social media: “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be compassionate and strong,” she is quoted as saying.

Majaniemi elaborates on what empathy actually is: “Empathy is about creating a work culture with respect and understanding. It does not mean that we need to let others walk all over us or change our decisions based on what others want. It means that we are assertive, driven, and fulfil our goals, and that we are accountable and demand others to do the same. We do it in a way where we incorporate empathy into strategy and all decisions that we make,” says Majaniemi. This, in turn, translates into optimal results for a company in the long-term and ultimately helps them grow their revenue.

Empathy is about creating a work culture with respect and understanding. It does not mean that we need to let others walk all over us or change our decisions based on what other want.

Niina Majaniemi, keynote speaker and author

Majaniemi argues that it is often fear that is holding leaders back. She gives an example, from her experience as an empathy expert, where a leader had a team that was really unhappy. Despite this, the leader was afraid to hear feedback about why morale was so low – he didn’t want to be badmouthed by them. “Empathy takes courage. This person was not brave enough to include empathy in their leadership strategy, but instead acted in a way that weak leaders do,” says Majaniemi. This leadership style often results in uncommitted employees, reduced efficiency and productivity. “This shows why authoritarian leadership simply doesn’t work anymore in today’s business world,” says Majaniemi.

Murray agrees that empathy is not about being soft or weak. He says that trust is the goal, and this is different from affection. “As a leader, I need to trust people and they must trust me, but I don’t have to like them. This is not to say that you can’t have both. I don’t need to like my dentist before she puts a drill in my mouth, but I sure need to trust her. And as much as I like my friend Neil, I would never trust him to do a root canal. Teams need trust and this is what empathic leaders foster,” he explains.

Empathy isn’t something that people either have or they don’t have; it is something that can be developed. Murray says, “Remember, empathy is a practice. You need to work on it.” And there are a number of ways to practise, and develop, empathy. Majaniemi says that listening and asking questions is important. When people gossip about others, she points out, they often say things like ‘What were they thinking?!’ or ‘I can’t understand why they would do that’. “We do not really mean that we can’t understand. We mean we don’t want to understand. Ask, and you might be surprised. Pause and reflect before talking,” she says.

And listening is also a key skill. Brower advises to “turn down your inner monologue and really listen to what the other person is saying. Actively consider what they must be thinking — cognitive empathy – or what they must be feeling – emotional empathy,” she says. It is also important to respond appropriately. Brower says that, based on what you hear, you should be ready to respond when necessary. “Offer encouragement if they’re going through something challenging, or share in their celebration based on their good news. Offer your help if they’re struggling with a project. Or simply keep things rolling if you’re in the middle of a collaboration and both feeling good about your progress. Your response doesn’t need to be complex or time-consuming, but meeting them where they are can have big payoffs,” Brower explains.

When you do listen to what people have to say, it is important to let go of your unconscious biases and judgement, says Manajiemi. She gives the example that with Zoom or Teams meetings there maybe pressure to put the camera on. And while a refusal to do so may be perceived to be down to laziness – because it is assumed they are still in their pyjamas – there may be all manner of reasons why people do not like to do so. One could be disability, for example. “We can’t judge and assume, we need to drive to understand. We need to give the benefit of the doubt until we know better, and this way we build more productive and profitable work,” Manajiemi says.

Murray also advises about leaving biases at the door, and how it is important to challenge your own views. “We build a set of mental models that explain how the world works. Analytically-minded people are experts in understanding the rules, systems and laws that govern mathematics and finance, many are objective and indisputable. Unfortunately, our brains are not as good as distinguishing between these objective facts and our more subjective beliefs,” Murray says. For example, someone yelling at home maybe interpreted differently – either as something bad happening, or people merely expressing themselves passionately. “Yelling means nothing until it is interpreted, and that interpretation is not a fact. Many times, when we work with others, we will judge their comments, opinions, actions and behaviours by our mental models. To be more empathetic, we need to challenge our initial assumptions and try to understand their mental models to really understand why they do what they do,” says Murray.

In order to take these tips on board, it is also necessary to manage yourself and how you handle stress. Majaniemi comments that stress is a common element that prevents us from being empathic. “When we are busy, we become a slave to our impulses,” she says. Most people can probably think of a time when they’ve thought, or said, ‘I don’t have time to listen to this – I’ve got my own problems’, she points out.

And similar to destressing and not being too busy, one of Brower’s top tips for building empathy is to be present with others. “Rather than multi-tasking – as we can all tend to do – really tune in and focus on others and what they are expressing,” she says.

In a similar vein, Murray advises to clear the desk – or desktop. “One of the biggest inhibitors of quality conversations are distractions. We have inboxes dinging, phones binging, post-it notes hanging off our screens and social media buzzing in our pockets. While you might think these don’t cause a distraction, research has shown that even the slightest noise in our environment can impact our ability to really focus and listen to other people,” says Murray. “If you are meeting with someone and want to really listen, clear your desk. Turn off your phone, put it in a draw. Sleep your computer or if you are on a virtual meeting, turn off notifications and close all programmes you don’t need. Really focus all your attention on the other person.”

Murray is also a believer in the power of silence, especially in a fast-paced work environment where schedules are busy, and meetings filled with question and answer sessions that can feel like a prosecutor’s grilling.

“Silence is often one of the most powerful tools in building a deeper understanding. When you are speaking with someone, instead of asking questions to validate your current thoughts, ask open questions and leave space after the person answers. What you will find is that people often give a shallow initial answer to a question, but with a bit of silence, they often offer a much richer and more thoughtful answer if there is space,” says Murray. “This is where the gold can be in understanding. Empathy can be as simple as having the curiosity and patience to wait,” he adds.

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