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.

Operationalizing 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.

Operationalize Empathy

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.