When I first started up Design and Build UK a decade ago, having to understand beyond what I needed in the business didn’t seem like anything I’d have to consider.
Interpersonal skills, communication, and an empathetic ear, whilst important, are sometimes seen as a league below the steadfast, organised nature of a good business person who can get the job done and the money brought in.
What surprised me, though, is that empathy and these so-called “soft skills” are integral to successful long-term business.
So, what is empathy?
In basic terms, empathy is putting the views and knowledge of others before your own by placing yourself in their position. When seen in a business context this involves listening to your team, giving direct feedback, and ultimately creating a working environment focused on mutual respect.
Studies show that most of the communication we process is non-verbal. Body language, eye contact, and the position of our bodies towards those speaking to us convey more of how much we’re engaging than most of the words we respond with.
Personal engagement is especially important to the younger workforce. A 2019 Gallup Poll reveals that two thirds of millennial workers are not emotionally connected to their work, and over half aren’t engaged at all.
As a result, the millennial generation, more so than any other, move freely from company to company because they don’t get what they want from work; namely: opportunities to learn and grow, a sense of purpose, high-quality management, and financial growth.
From a business perspective, this is detrimental to sustaining a loyal, effective workforce. In simple economic terms, Gallup estimated the annual cost of millennial employment turnover in the US alone to be in the tens of billions.
But to focus on economic cost alone would be to ignore the wider-stretching, interwoven benefits of empathetic leadership. Putting yourself in other peoples’ shoes can favour everyone you come across in your work life.
A huge part of leading a team comes from making the right decision for everyone and empathy is an exercise in knowing that you’re not always right. Knowing when to open up to your team and their diverse range of knowledge and experiences can only help with whatever issue you’re facing. In turn, this will declare to your team that they have value within the company, that their opinions are respected, and that they have a small part in the success of their workplace.
A real-world example of this comes from none other than Google and their 2017 study known as ‘Project Aristotle’ which set out to identify the traits of a successful workplace. Over two years, a small internal team studied hundreds of new and old Google employees in order to understand what made the most effective working team.
Amongst key traits like clear goals and well-defined roles, ‘psychological safety’, or an environment where you feel safe enough to let your guard down and take risks was an important factor in creating effective working teams. Google found that teams with ‘psychologically safe’ working environments were ultimately more successful and created some of the company’s most important ideas.
The results of Project Aristotle are crucial source material for team leaders to understand how employees’ output is affected by their wellbeing within the company but beyond the mutual benefits that empathy yields between employer and employee, how does it affect the customer experience?
Empathy in business lies in knowing and anticipating what the customer needs and how to market your product or service to them. As well as this being useful in short-term business, customers who feel a better connection to you are more likely to recommend your services to others; creating strong referrals and more repeat customers over a longer period.
With both of my companies, We Connect Construction and Design & Build UK, I am confident enough to say when our services aren’t right for customers. I don’t want to take money from someone who will never get much from what we provide but I will always advise them in whatever way I can when I understand what they are looking for. That way, I will have a customer who will return and keep a good name for my business.
As you can see, empathy in leadership is a simple but highly effective skill that favours everyone involved in your business. Maybe more importantly though, having a better understanding of those around us can make for a better world to live in whether we’re doing business or not.
Empathy is a simple concept that doesn’t always come naturally to us, but whether in a business scenario or in everyday life, having a better understanding of those around us has the potential to make everyone’s lives that little bit easier.