I was in a meeting with the owner of a creative agency earlier this week. Inevitably, our conversation led to a discussion about empathy: why it matters and why it is the through line that stitches together all of my work and my vision for grio. He wondered what it was about me personally that made me arrive at empathy.
I am not sure I have a deep, eloquent answer to this question, but I probably should because I get asked quite often these days. Perhaps it has to do with being the middle brother to two sisters. And maybe there’s something about moving a lot as a child following my parents’ divorce, and having to make friends in new neighborhoods and schools. Or it could have something to do with living in a foreign country for the past fifteen years and having to walk the line between integration and assimilation.
All those things have, in some way, shaped my ability to relate to others and my fascination with empathy. Those experiences undoubtedly color the lens through which I view the world and it leaks through in my work. But when I talk about empathy in business, I really think about it in a very practical way.
As human beings, we have no direct access to the experience of other people-- their thoughts, emotions, desires, fears or insecurities. And this presents an interesting challenge for entrepreneurs who are trying to bring new products and services to market, marketers who are trying to sell those products by sharing new ideas and creating new experiences, and for leaders who have to motivate employees to deliver results that they themselves are ultimately accountable for.
What all of these people have in common is the necessity to understand-- often quite deeply-- the people they seek to serve. They have to understand what makes them tick; their motivations, needs, wants and aspirations. They have to understand how those people process information and prefer to interact with the world. But how can they when there’s a gap that separates their own experience from the experiences of those people?
To close that gap, they need empathy. They need to sharpen the incredible ability we all have to put ourselves in other people's shoes and to see things from their perspectives-- even when they don’t look like us, when they come from different backgrounds or when their experiences don’t mirror ours. And because our default is to experience life from our own vantage point, it takes deliberate effort and practice.
A SHIFT IN BEHAVIORS AND EXPECTATIONS
There was a time when the collective consciousness accepted that the sole purpose of a business was to make money. Consumers, employees and societies at large absolved businesses of all social responsibility. And those corporations behaved in ways that reflected the following social contract: As long as you create goods, services and jobs you owe nothing else to society.
The line between personal and professional aspirations was also clear. Employees looked at career advancement and their longing for happiness and fulfillment as two separate pursuits. But those days are long gone. And the changes in people’s expectations of a business’ responsibility to society heighten the need for more empathy.
1. Business as a force for good
Consumers and employees are applying more pressure for companies to move past public relations and corporate responsibility stunts. They want brands that, at the very least, recognize that the fundamental purpose of a business is to enhance the human experience of those they seek to serve, and ideally, accept and take seriously their responsibility to be a force for good in the world. They want brands that not only insert themselves in important social and political conversations, but take a stance. And thanks to the internet and social media, consumers and employees have more power than ever to make businesses at least reconsider their purpose.
The line between personal and professional aspirations is also blurred. People want to work for companies that espouse their values and give them the opportunity to contribute their gifts and talents to causes that matter to them. They long for more happiness and fulfillment at work, for more equity, diversity and inclusion, for more companies that prioritize their well-being over profits. And in this climate, managers and companies will need to deploy more empathy to attract and retain top talents.
2. Managing the next generation
Gen Z and millennials are often criticized in the workplace for their perceived lack of motivation, drive and focus, as well as their supposed sense of entitlement. Whether or not this criticism is fair, it signals a massive lack of empathy from managers who haven’t adjusted well to the changing expectations and motivations of the next generations of employees. Putting your head down, putting in your time, or being loyal to a company for 30 years in exchange for a “generous” pension, is unappealing to this new generation because it doesn’t reflect their reality. And leaders have to make peace with this fact.
Experiencing reality as we wish it would be instead of what it actually is, is the root of much of our suffering-- both in our personal and professional lives. And leaders who find it hard to understand and accept the shifting needs and expectations of the next generation are having an impossible time engaging, inspiring and motivating them.
COVID THE GREAT ACCELERATOR
All of these shifts have been in motion for many decades now. And it seems that COVID is serving as an accelerator to a slow burning fire. First, COVID has put into focus just how much people now expect companies to become forces for good and agents for change in our society. People expect them, not governments, to lead the way on important issues such as diversity and inclusion, racial and gender equity, climate change, fair trade and mental health to name only a few.
Second, COVID is changing the workplace forever, shifting even further people’s expectations for their careers and their employers. The human toll of the global pandemic, and the time spent in confinement, or even isolation for some people, have forced us all to re-evaluate our personal and professional lives. Remote work is becoming a permanent fixture of the work landscape and, with it, a new set of expectations from employees. All of this is at the core of the great resignation we are witnessing across the country, challenging companies and leaders to spend the time required to develop their empathy muscles.
I was recently advised by two very successful CEOs to shift my strategy at grio to focus more on the nonprofit sector because it would be a more natural fit for my ideas around empathy. Their advice reminded me of the importance of our work and our mission at grio.
Ultimately, it may be conventional wisdom to discard empathy as something that has no place in a ruthless and cut-throat environment like business. But empathy is one of the most practical skills a 21st century leader, organization or brand will need in order to navigate the seismic changes in our society.
written by Junior Nyemb, chief empathy officer