Empathy: Is It an Overrated Concept or a Powerful Business Skill?
Empathy has started to become one of the most essential skills that management should foster amongst their leaders. The Center for Creative Leadership conducted a study that included 6,732 managers in 38 countries and concluded that empathy has a positive impact on job performance. Namely, bosses perceive their subordinates (managers) who practice empathetic leadership as better performers in their jobs and it has proved to have a vital role across the business functions, such as Marketing, Customer Service, and Human Resources. Ultimately, it showed that embracing empathy within the culture of the workplace can positively influence the employees’ job satisfaction.
Empathy and Marketing/Product Development
In marketing, trying to understand your customers and putting yourself in their shoes, will definitely help you to better understand their needs. Consequently, this would help in creating and promoting the right products and services for the right customers. Empathizing is actually the first step in the design thinking process, which includes understanding the customers before you start to design your product. According to Stanford, empathy is an integral aspect when designing a human-centered process, and it further explains that the “Empathize mode is the work you do to understand people, within the context of your design challenge.”
Empathizing means observing, engaging, and listening to your customers; it does not focus only on talking with your customers and getting insights from interviewing them. It is about putting yourself in the customers’ shoes to try and figure out their pain points and thoughts concerning their attitude and behavior with a specific product/service while still having the perspective of a marketer or product developer. Marketers or product developers might even reach conclusions that could lead them to a whole new product that would actually create a need that their target market has not thought of.
An example that could illustrate this is IKEA’s marketing strategy involving products of flat packs and self-assembly furniture. One of the company’s frontline workers found difficulty in trying to get a table into his car, so he took the legs off to make the table fit. This led to an empathetic insight that consumers might be facing the same problem. To address the issue, IKEA initiated flat packs and self-assembly furniture. This example highlights empathetic reasoning in which employees are keen to put themselves in the shoes of customers, resulting in higher market performance.
Empathy and Customer Service
If you want to better serve your customers and solve their problems, empathy is the main key to a better customer experience and should be embraced in a customer service function’s strategy and culture. When customer service agents answer their clients, whether it is over the phone or face-to-face, they should show that they care about solving their clients’ issues and offer better alternatives. This is one way of keeping their customers and turning them from one-time purchase customers to loyal ones.
Talking and listening to your customers in an empathetic way is one of the strategies that will enable customer service functions to handle difficult customers while gathering more data and insights. This could help other departments in improving their products and services, such as adding more features or even coming up with new solutions. Empathetic behavior in customer service also helps organizations in maintaining good relationships with their customers, especially for industries that rely on the customers to create their image of the organization through their customer service agents.
Empathy and Human Resources
Dealing with your employees in an empathetic manner will definitely have a positive impact on their job satisfaction and performance. Empathy should be involved across the different HR areas and not just in communicating with employees, such as feedback meetings or training and development programs. Having an empathetic attitude will enable HR people to gather more data for developing better rewards, benefits systems, and training and development programs. Moreover, embracing an empathetic attitude will enable HR functions to foster inclusion and diversity in the workplace, which is one of the top priorities for HR leaders and managers.
Empathy in HR has never been more important than today as people and businesses around the world are trying to recover from the effects of COVID-19. Encouraging and supporting managers and leaders to practice empathetic listening with employees is not a waste of time. While leaders and managers do not have to agree with everything being said by their employees, it is imperative for them to show their employees that they care about their opinions, ideas, and thoughts. With the challenges of remote working amongst others, empathy has become vital as it increases the employees’ sense of belonging and appreciation in the workplace.
However, some business owners might think that empathy is overrated and can have a negative impact. For instance, some managers or leaders may think empathy could cause emotional and psychological burdens that could lead to burnout. Moreover, it might even lead to poor decision-making as it encourages managers and leaders to be emotionally involved which may push them to make wrong decisions rather than focus on data and facts. Furthermore, some organizations might be worried that empathy may create a messy or chaotic environment to work in; structured and professional feedback meetings, for instance, may turn into informal chats.
Everything has its pros and cons, but it depends on how the organization embraces empathy in the workplace and to what extent. It is essential that organizations differentiate between empathy and sympathy as the two concepts are completely different. It is the responsibility of HR people to highlight the difference between the two concepts starting from the top management to the most junior person in the workplace. Moreover, setting the limits of practicing empathy in the workplace is essential; it is not about agreeing to everything being said by the employees or giving false promises, but it is about listening and making an effort to understand what the other person is trying to explain to reach a decision that can benefit both employer and employee.
Like any skill, empathy is good up to a certain extent. Organizations need to understand how they want to involve it in their culture and in what sense. HR functions should provide sessions/workshops or training sessions that explain the definition of empathy and the methods of practicing it. HR functions also should monitor how leaders and managers are practicing empathy within their functions and how their employees are perceiving it.