I never fully understood how important empathy was for companies. Until recently, I had an idea of what the word meant but not how it could apply to situations other than relationships. Rather foolish to realize this at my age, but better late than never.
A random article about empathy in projects was all it took to make me appreciate how this skill is essential in our life. I knew that listening to customers, integrating feedback, taking care of the details are all critical elements at work, but I rarely used empathy to describe this before.
Because in the end, it all boils down to empathy, and it's part of everything in life and shapes the inner and outer functioning of a company.
What is empathy?
As you might have guessed, I'm not the right person to teach you what empathy is. Instead of giving a flimsy definition, let me use people's words more competent than me.
The Oxford dictionary defines empathy as follows: the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. It's a simple yet efficient way to describe it, but let's go a bit deeper.
The Greater Good magazine informs that research defines two types of empathy: affective and cognitive. The former refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to others' emotions, and the latter is our ability to identify and understand other people's emotions.
Henry Ford even said: « If there is anyone secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person's point of view and see things from that person's angle as well as from your own. » Which is funny since it comes from the same guy that customers could have any paint as long as it's black.
Those definitions tell us something: empathy is a natural human reaction built inside our everyday interactions. Not everybody experiences it the same way, but it's universally shared.
Why is empathy important in companies?
Empathy could be seen as something that regulates social and private relationships. This is true, but empathy also has an important place in professional relations and governs in part the way we communicate.
Empathy in the professional environment impacts both internal relationships, between colleagues, and external relationships, with clients.
Working on clients' projects is hard. Often we aren't working for ourselves or our clients but our clients' users. It is critical to keep this in mind in all stages of the product lifecycle to ensure that what is developed meets their expectations. The product must use the appropriate language and display information appropriately.
Software development is a lengthy process, and going from an idea to an actual product is hard and takes a lot of effort. Showing empathy throughout the creative process is vital to increasing the chances of success. This will yield a stronger customer relationship and better involvement of all stakeholders, thus increasing the value delivered to end-users. Finally, it shows that we care about the product that is being built.
Finally, showing empathy is a sign of respect. The company indicates that it cares about its customers and wants to make every penny invested in the project worthwhile. In this context, the discussion will be facilitated, and the customers will feel accompanied and supported.
Inside the Company
While being empathic with customers is essential, it's also critical to have empathy within the company. A business that maintains excellent client relationships by making sure everyone is respected should have a decent working environment. But this could be a facade.
Being empathic with colleagues is a way to acknowledge that everyone is different. Some can work with little documentation or help where others want structure. It doesn't mean that one is more competent than the other. It's a matter of character. Knowing everybody's needs is important to keep a team together and efficient. Adapting to others' needs is a great sign of respect, and people will realize it.
Project managers are facilitators, and they have to make sure anybody can work efficiently with little interruption. That's why the PM must understand every team members' needs.
One solution could be to have a standard way to document tickets that allow anyone to work on them. However, if tickets are assigned to employees during a discussion or a meeting, it could be wise to add additional information if the person needs more information. This way, managing tasks won't take more time than usual, and only the one assigned to specific people will require some polish. In the end, team members will work efficiently and with information that helps them achieve their goals. Also, keep in mind that a little too much info has never hurt anyone.
Building an empathic company will also help build a stronger and more authentic relationship with employees. Considering people's needs will show that the company cares about their work and value their contribution. Besides, it will make people stay. A team that has worked together for several years will deliver some high-quality products that cannot be found elsewhere.
When There Is Too Much Empathy
My piece wouldn't make much sense if the cure to many companies' issues showed more empathy toward customers and employees. There is no silver bullet in life, and empathy isn't an exception. It has its limitation, and ignoring them would be wrong. An article from the Harvard Business Review highlights some of the challenges.
First, it's a heavy-duty cognitive task. We all understand the physical and mental tiredness are. A person working in an environment where much empathy is required can become exhausted. Empathy is very taxing on the cognitive resources at our disposal and will drain them quickly. One could start to suffer compassion fatigue and begin to lack empathy.
Besides, everyone to a certain amount of empathy she can show. The more empathy one has in the professional ring, the less one will have in the private circle. The more empathy I offer to my spouse, the less I'll have for my mother. This can lead to a situation where we select individuals whom we usher empathy to. We'll tend to privilege the people of the close groups and leave the outsiders on the side. It's a vicious circle where we'll spend our empathy reserve on close people and become less interested in understanding others.
Finally, working in an empathic system can lead to ethics degradation. We won't show aggression toward people outside our circle but rather too much loyalty to insiders. This point can be explained by the previous one. Showing empathy creates more robust bonds with people. While this can positively impact the group, it could also lead to bribery and injustices toward those outside of the group.
How to make it, right?
Implementing an empathic-centric company is a challenge, and some elements must be considered to avoid facing the issues we just discussed. The process is long, and it would be a shame to ruin all those efforts by overlooking some aspects or going in the wrong direction.
It's critical to understand that not everybody in a company or a team (depending on the size) should have access to everybody. Doing so will quickly drain the empathy reserve one has and lead to fatigue and stress. Instead, companies should focus on having a team dedicated to one stakeholder's needs. It can either inter internal or external to the company.
As said before, empathy is limited, and everybody has their own capacity. To avoid clashes or stress, it's important to respect people's need to recharge their batteries. It is possible to have quiet places where employees know they will not be disturbed (a capsule to isolate themselves or a room dedicated to this purpose, for example). But it can also be a matter of internal company policies imposing people to avoid disturbing a person wearing a headset. A text message on slack or teams can be sent before physically interrupting the person. Showing empathy is critical to allow others to deplete their battery.
Finally, having an adversarial mindset will prevent us from finding favorable deals for both parties. Instead, we'll have the sentiment we've lost, and we won't have considered the needs and feelings of our interlocutor. Instead of being competitive and focusing on our gains, we should ask questions and offer solutions that benefit everybody. Having a win-win benefits everybody, but it also avoids draining our empathy reserve and allows us to focus on what matters.