I’m going to throw out a word which is seldom (if ever) used in the context of business, yet is critical to our success for several very real and compelling reasons. That word is empathy.
The simplest definition I have found for empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings, experiences and emotions of another. But beware. While this definition may be easy to comprehend, it is by no means easy to practice — especially for those of us in business. That’s because we’ve all been taught that the only thing that really matters in business is the bottom line or increasing shareholder wealth. And while, as a business owner, I would be crazy not to focus on each of these with anything but laser-beam intensity, I would also be lying if I told you that they were the only things that mattered to me about my business — and I’m willing to bet that the same is probably true for most small business owners.
I’ll share with you my personal perspective and experience.
I own an engineering and construction company. This necessarily implies that my success depends entirely on both internal and external interpersonal interactions. I don’t earn an income or build wealth by sitting in front of a computer playing the stock market or online poker. My income depends entirely on the success of my business, and the success of my business depends entirely on my ability to lead and collaborate with others on my team, and on our team’s combined ability to create value for our clients. If I’ve said this once, I’ve said it a hundred times: Business is all about connecting. Every book on leadership you’ll ever read and every leadership training seminar you’ll ever attend ultimately boils down to this basic concept. At the personal level, creating strong connections is what separates the great leaders from all the rest. At the organizational level, it’s what marketing and advertising professionals throughout Corporate America get paid billions of dollars a year for. Why? Because the better you connect with your team, the better your team will perform. The better you connect with your customers, the more of them you’ll have. That’s good business. That’s the ultimate bottom line.
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And this is where empathy comes in to the picture.
There are more than several critical success factors associated with running a business and managing and leading teams, but few would argue that among the most important is communication. And while most people would wholeheartedly agree that communication is at the top of the list, they haven’t a clue how to do it. It’s all about empathy.
I know plenty of individuals at every level of the corporate ladder who communicate eloquently and professionally, but they don’t communicate effectively. As odd as this may sound, the reason is because when they communicate, they apply the Golden Rule, which we all learned as children, “Treat others the way you would like them to treat you,” which, under most circumstances holds true, but not always. When it comes to communicating effectively for the purpose of truly connecting with others they would be much better off applying what Merrick Rosenberg and Daniel Silvert, authors of Taking Flight — Master the DISC Styles to Transform Your Career, Your Relationships... Your Life, call the House Rule: “Treat others how they need to be treated, not how you need to be treated.” In other words, effective communicators know how to “adjust” their own personal communication style depending on whom they’re communicating with and the context in which that communication is taking place.
In my own business, this is a concept that I constantly stress to all my department leaders and one which I hold them accountable to as part of their evaluation. I do so not only because it improves the connections they’re each required to nurture with those who report to them respectively, but it also improves the connections with the other leaders they have to collaborate with at the executive level. It’s the only way, I have found, to create a truly strong and effective team that can lead Lemartec to a better future.
And the same concept applies externally with our customers — perhaps, to an even greater degree. That’s because empathy doesn’t simply move us to adjust our personal communication styles: It helps us to gain a better appreciation for our customers’ needs and the emotional and intellectual considerations that play into their decision-making processes.
This high-level of effectiveness in our internal and external operations necessarily requires empathy. But as I already warned, empathy is difficult to practice — especially for those of us in business. Why? Because if you refer to the definition I provided, you’ll notice that empathy implies more than just “understanding” the feelings, experiences and emotions of another: It requires “sharing” them as well — and that’s where most of us in business have traditionally drawn the line. (All that, “It’s not personal, it’s business” crap.)
So let’s not be too quick to draw that line. We may find that by practicing a little more empathy at work, we’ll not only become better businesspeople, we’ll become better people. And that’s what’s so desperately needed today.