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To develop empathy: A most untapped lever of productivity and core to good conversation

I could make the argument that empathy is a major part of the solution to many of today’s business problems, be it digital transformation, better design, enhanced customer service or stronger employee engagement. But that would undersell the power of empathy. I fundamentally believe that empathy is also key to helping solve many of society’s ills as well. Moreover, these days, it seems that everywhere I turn, I hear people talking about empathy. In fact, whereas many surveys indicate a drop in perceived empathy in society and business, empathy seems to be a hot topic these days.* Around 70 sessions at this year’s SXSW 2019 conference included empathy in the title or description. Many more sessions talked about it. A slew of new business books have vaunted the need and/or power of empathy, including Seth Godin’s This is Marketing, Rohit Bhargava’s 2019 Non-Obvious Trends, Jay Baer’s Talk Triggers and Brian Solis’ Lifescale. In today’s environment, there are clearcut reasons as to why empathy may be deeply needed. Like all trendy subjects, however, it runs the risk of being overplayed, manipulated and bastardized.

One of the ways that people are looking to deploy empathy in business is by coding it into Artificial Intelligence. For the main, these efforts have been focussed on chat bots or helping to augment customer service agents. The temptation to offload customer service to automated services is enormous and, for companies with large customer bases, strategic. Yet, companies need to look carefully at the confines and constructs around which they are looking to deploy empathy. First, executives need to understand that it’s no good being empathic toward the outside and not internally. Secondly, they need to evaluate with a good deal of honesty their culture and be sufficiently self-aware about the environment within the organisation in order to properly develop a greater culture of empathy. Thirdly, the team needs to consider closely their ethical framework within which they plan to “use” the empathy. Without much difficulty, the empathy can be used and abused. There is, moreover, a link between empathy and ethics. In order to avoid the classic issue of bias in AI, it’s important to start with a developed sense of empathy.

Empathy when well understood and implemented can reap tremendous seeds in terms of employee engagement, better customer service, a strong relationship with the brand and, finally, bottom line results. For example, in a 2016 HBR article,  Belinda Parmar presented results for companies according to the Empathy Index. The article wrote, “The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings (defined by market capitalization).” Regarding employee engagement, the Businessolver 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study wrote that “87 percent of CEOs see a direct link between workplace empathy and business performance, productivity, [employee] retention and general business health.” I have seen that empathy is increasingly finding its way into trainings and corporate learning for development programmes. The key will be in the long-term implementation as empathy is a muscle that needs to be flexed on a consistent basis to bear its fruits.

I am convinced that the future of any great business will pass through a strengthening of its empathic muscle, that is demonstrated at the top of the company, lived by the employees and that flows through into the customer experience, and the products and services being delivered.


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* A March 2019 survey the author conducted online with 288 responses, showed that 59% of people believe that empathy has declined over the last 10 years.

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