The 2014 Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor was recently published. This is an annual survey conducted tracking leadership trends worldwide. Within the survey, there are many wake-up calls for leaders. For example, survey participants said only 33% of business leaders lead based on a “clear set of values.” Only a third of business leaders have defined and communicated the values they lead with. This number is way too low!
Maybe even scarier is 58% “somewhat” lead on a clear set of values. Flimsy leaders mean they will blow in the wind, making decisions one way and then later making a similar decision in a different way. Granted, information changes and values may evolve, but how can values evolve if you aren’t clear on the original set?
As I read through the report, one particular statement stuck with me. It is:
“In crisis situations, it is critical to offer practical, accountable solutions that match words and deeds, while operationalizing empathy – rather than simply showing empathy for its own sake.” (Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor, May 2014, page 18)
The question is: How do you operationalize empathy?
Empathetic Leadership Defined
As I dug into what an empathetic leader really means, I came across this solid definition provided by the Financial Times Lexicon:
“Empathic leadership is the ability of leaders to understand, relate to and be sensitive to customers, colleagues and communities….
The empathic leader will try to understand why their customers want to buy into their brand, not simply in a soft, touchy-feely way but literally from their point of view – from standing in their shoes. This brings a powerful and compelling aspect to the design, build and delivery of any product or service, the holy grail of business success and one reason why some brands are market leaders, but most are not.
Empathic leadership is not however, an easy path. For a start it goes against the myth of the hero leader. It’s not about ego, it’s about humility. It’s not about fulfilling personal agendas, it’s about helping customers, colleagues and communities to lead better lives.”
Empathetic Leadership Values
Taking this definition into account, there are several leadership values to consider:
- Humility – Humbleness translates into listening to understand another without regard to our own perspective or self-interest. We embrace another as if they are the only person in the world, absorbing their views, wants, feelings, and then we ask questions to learn more.
- Understanding – Understanding doesn’t mean we have to adopt their way of life or way of doing. What it does mean is we “get it.” We comprehend their perspective and can repeat it in a meaningful way. We appreciate another’s perspective, finding value and learning.
- Discipline – Armed with new perspectives, we incorporate what we learned into how we deliver products and services. We also determine how to build a better underlying infrastructure and culture to support those we serve and offer solutions to.
- Other-centered – Great leaders know what they do is not about them. Great leaders know it is about the team members, customers, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders. There is a higher purpose in the decisions made, more than just themselves. There is a bigger community who can benefit from and provide input into better products and serves. Great leaders are other-centered.
I realize there are other values to include in order to lead with empathy, and please add your thoughts in the comments below. Getting your perspective will open up the conversation and help us all learn and become better leaders. And the point is clear – we need to know our values, communicate them, and lead with them.
Empathy and “More Feminine”
Another aspect of the Ketchum Leadership Communication Monitor is how female leaders outperform male leaders on the “most important leader attributes.” These are attributes are:
- Leading by example
- Communicating in an open, transparent way
- Admitting mistakes
- Bringing out the best in others
The final attribute was “handling controversial issues or crisis calmly.” Although male leaders performed better here, it was close.
A call-to-action within the report then is to be more “feminine” in how we lead. I have no problem with this terminology, but it really is a call to lead with more empathy, which takes us back to the key question of how to operationalize empathy.
I don’t have all the answers to this question. As I think through how to operationalize empathy, I would do the following:
1 – Go Small to Go Big
I wrote earlier how tiny is the next big thing, and I do believe it is. Going small plays well in terms of operationalizing empathy, too. Using products like TINYpulse keep leaders more current in what potential issues or successes are.
Beyond technology solutions, engaging one-to-one conversations deepens understanding as well. Spending less times in big, long meetings and more time with individuals or smaller groups produces greater understanding.
These activities are not just for within the four walls of an organization. The same practices are true for meeting with customers and other stakeholders. By reaching out internally and externally, empathy becomes a way of business.
2 – Flatter Structures | Distributed Responsibility | Clear Accountability
Leading with empathy seems to really demand a flatter organizational structure. How can an empathetic organization really take hold with layers and layers of management? Having flatter organizations may make leading with empathy seem more daunting. Anything that produces lasting results takes effort though.
Flatter organizations translate into distributing responsibility for decisions, actions, and interactions. Within flatter and distributed organizations, clarity of roles needs to go hand-in-hand with clarity of expectations. Accountability is a necessity. This is how empathy within an organization can be done.
With this flat, distributed, and accountable organization, training is even more important. We cannot expect everything just to happen magically. Effort is required, and training is a key part of the effort. To build a solid culture, training helps communicate values as well as provide a guide on how to operationalize them, how to make them a part of daily activities.
3 – Learning from Mistakes as a Company, Team, and More
Imperfection is a fact. What we learn from imperfection is vital. Learning organizations gain strength. Making mistakes doesn’t mean letting people make inappropriate decisions freely and without regard for values and others. With a strong set of leadership and cultural values, backed by communication and training, most people will make the best decisions possible.
When failures happen, the first element is to admit mistakes. As pointed out in the feminine leadership strengths, admitting mistakes is a key value to adopt by all leaders. After the admission, the accountability kicks in as well as the learning.
General Motors is in the news a lot lately. Mistakes were obviously made, and people suffered from them. Mary T. Barra, CEO of General Motors, is admitting mistakes and then holding people accountable. At times, people need to be fired when they made decisions out of character (values) of what an organization stands for. From here, the organization needs to learn from the mistakes made and put in place stronger practices, guidance, and training to prevent the same mistakes from being made. In other words, leaders, teams, and organizations need to learn from mistakes and lead in new, better ways.
4 – Defining Purpose and Leading from Purpose Every Day
As Conscious Capitalism highlights, profit and purpose can (and should) co-exist. Both are necessary to make each work. Profit without purpose produces bad decisions, failed companies, and negative economic impacts. Purpose without profit in business results in lost jobs and stale careers along with customers uncertain about whether the product or service is worth their investment and use. With purpose, empathy has a chance to survive and thrive within an organization and become an enabler of profit and purpose.
Just as purpose and profit go well together so do purpose and empathy. Purpose delivers the reason to use empathy in daily business operations, and empathy ensures a higher purpose is a key understanding of why we do the work and how we do the work.
Operationalizing Empathy – A Business and Leadership Challenge
As leaders and organizations develop in the years ahead, I believe wholeheartedly that how empathy is operationalized will be a key differentiator and competitive advantage. Operationalizing empathy is the leadership challenge to be understood and embraced if we are to become better leaders and better organizations.
So, how can empathy be operationalized? Join in and let’s build a better way to lead and thrive.
Join the Conversation
How Do You Operationalize Empathy?
A truly exceptional post, Jon! As I started reading, I found myself reflecting on many of the leaders that I know that I think really wanted to be empathetic but really didn’t know how to go beyond anything superficial. This is a must read.
Empathy isn’t about us, it’s about our relationships and the authentic connections that we build with others. I would have struggled to find the words for what you’ve brought forward here. Will be sharing and I know it will make a difference.
Thanks so much, Alli, for the feedback and support. I believe that leaders who get empathy right in the way they lead will raise up our leadership standards and set a great example for others to follow. Determining the best way to lead with empathy is the challenge and one we need to figure out as a community.
Appreciate your thoughts and look forward to further conversations! Thanks. Jon
Terrific and comprehensive post, Jon and one that evokes great dialogue!
Leaders who understand the need for empathy in dealing with co-workers as well as customers will always come out on top because leading is all about understanding what makes people tick and act.
I think at the hub of operationalizing empathy is building it into our leadership presence through our communication and relationship development. We need to be willing to share our vulnerabilities and be mindful of the challenges other people face. Recently working with a group of leaders on becoming more powerful communicators, listening to really understand what is being said, kept coming up. When we become speaker focused in order to clearly understand what a speaker is saying, we show empathy and respect for them. That is a beginning of operationalizing empathy.
Thanks Jon! Look forward to the discussion!
Thank you, Terri, for sharing your insights and experiences. Leadership presence is key — listening fully, talking mindfully, and being engaging. Key skills to keep enhancing in order to operationalize empathy. Appreciate your insights and work in these areas! Jon
As with many things, it’s likely that empathy will first be measured by its effects rather than its presence/absence/strength. Effects like “employee engagement,” “consumer confidence,” etc will likely continue to be proxies for empathy for some time. At its heart empathy is an interesting combination of understanding and action, which may be difficult to quantify operationally. While measures can be completed in testing (similar to reading comprehension), it appears to be difficult to translate an operational test to action in real settings. An interesting question, Jon. Will be interested to learn more.
Thank you, Joy. Empathy may be a difficult thing to measure and operationalize. At the same time, it seems we must do this without losing the essence of empathy. A challenge indeed! You hit on it with your insight that core to empathy is “an interesting combination of understanding and action.” Within this mix, it the operational element we need to build and then do. Thanks for your insights and looking forward to the insights and perspectives on this question. Grateful! Jon