Empathy is not a speed breaker, but a performance accelerator
Storytelling. Remember the breakthrough discovery of how storytelling helps establish an instant connection with customers? Gaining not just their attention, but their interest and in most cases their loyalty as well? The key purpose and outcome of beautiful storytelling –establishing an unbreakable connection or an unbreakable instant bond with consumers, that goes beyond features, products, services, price, and every such element associated with a business.
What was the role of that instant connection? It’s neuroscience! Several research reports have highlighted the impact of hormones like oxytocin and dopamine on human behavior. How certain external stimuli possess the power to trigger response from these hormones, which in turn suggests favorable behavioral responses.
Why did organizations shift from talking about their products to telling stories? For the very reason of striking an emotional connect and a recall, through external stimuli. Translating that school of thought in the context of the present day, isn’t it more crucial to ensure such a meaningful connect and loyalty with the workforce first, and then move on to sustaining such meaningful connects with customers in the long-term?
Storytelling has successfully been leveraged to design some of the most influential marketing campaigns to strike that bond with consumers, making content not just relatable, but triggering empathy. And while Chief Marketing Officers are leading the charge on integrating empathy into customer relations, who exactly is in charge of integrating this concept into employee relations? The Chief Human Resource Officer, or the Chief Executive Officer? While that debate continues, there are organizations that have passed on the baton on leading the empathy agenda for employees to an altogether new executive, designated and recognized as “Chief Empathy Officer ”.
So what is the conversation around empathy and why is there a pertinent need for a Chief Empathy Officer in the current scenario? Let’s find out!
Empathy needs to be embedded in the fabric of the organizational culture
Empathy has often been discussed as a good to have soft skill for leaders. However, ever since COVID-19 brought on widespread disruption, the need for empathy grew leaps and bounds to ensure people sustainability. Yes, while the two terms often used have been business continuity and people safety, what it essentially encompasses is business continuity and people sustainability, and empathy is about people sustainability, which is why the criticality needs to be amplified. One such way is by evolving the leadership structure to accommodate a Chief Empathy Officer, who then would identify the right strategies to embed empathy into the cultural fabric of the organization.
Having appointed Tiffany Persons as the company’s very first Chief Empathy Officer in August 2020, Founder and Chairman of David&Goliath (D&G), David Angelo stated, "Given the immense challenges of today, from world health to systemic racism to issues around diversity, equity and inclusion, it seemed a natural evolution of our culture to create a new role, one that not only aligns with our truth, but most importantly is dedicated to creating sustainable, impactful change, from the inside of our agency out, through the lens of empathy”.
Interestingly, a Businessolver report on State of Workplace Empathy 2020 revealed that a whopping 91 percent of CEOs believe empathy is directly linked to a company‘s financial performance, with 72 percent of CEOs acknowledging that the state of workplace empathy needs to evolve.
Tiffany’s appointment as Chief Empathy Officer, among several other Chief Empathy Officers who have been appointed in recent times, goes to show the increasing need, recognition, and impact of having a leadership role dedicated to growing empathy as a value in the organization.
Bringing in empathy through authenticity
The vote of confidence with “This too shall pass” needs to be supported by an empathetic and supportive work environment to help the workforce sail through rough times until these times do in fact pass.
Design thinking. Another interesting concept that brought about revolutionary thinking and altered the approach to designing products and services, with feedback as the driving force to recognize and modify the product or service in question. A similar approach to organizational empathy is required to improve employee experience, at least improved if not make it seamless. And the simplest way is by encouraging two-way conversations, with more of listening to what employees have to say, and then adjusting, introducing, or eliminating any practice that hinders their sense of trust and performance.
An authentic approach to being empathetic was shared by Uniphore’s Chief People Officer, Annie Weckesser, in one of her conversations with People Matters, “Given the many challenges we face today, be it company-wide or at a personal level, managers need to be empathetic towards employees. Empathetic by way of listening to what employees have to say and being open to their suggestions.” She added, it is very critical for managers to show empathy towards their team members. This can be done by looking beyond deliverables achieved and considering different situations employees face when working remotely.”
Being empathetic doesn't get in the way of work, it enables work
“Empathy is fundamental to leadership. Especially in times of crisis, it is important for a leader to display empathy, to communicate to the employees that they care for their needs. However tough the times are, our shared concern of “we are in this together” will go a long way towards building an environment of support and also drive better performance,” emphasized Siddharth Mehta, CEO Freecharge, in conversation with People Matters.
A common thought process among management is often about prioritizing customers over employees, especially today when they continue to ensure a seamless experience for customers, demanding much more from employees, and offering much less in return. However, there are visible changes across industries and geographies where organizations are stepping up in this hour of need and equipping employees with all they need to at the end of the day, feel and perform better. In a keynote session at People Matters TechHR 2020, APJ Senior Director of Employee Workflows, ServiceNow, Alex Margarit, recommended being empathetic first and then introducing employee-friendly services. “It’s about understanding their journey, being empathetic and being employee-centric, then meeting their needs with digital, cross-functional services.”
According to a 2019 Nielsen analysis that studied 61,000 SKUs representing more than 12,000 new launches since 2011, ‘Empathy’ is the #1 rule for “new product innovation success.”
Empathy isn’t just great for employee experience, it results in enhanced engagement, productivity, and loyalty, consequently resulting in better innovation, products, services, and revenue.
The rise of Chief Empathy Officer
Some argue the need for leaders to be empathetic, which of course is a non-negotiable, however, the scale and magnitude of disruption that the workforce is experiencing today calls for a specialized focus on employee journey, one that smoothens the transition and uncertainty while also fostering a more collaborative and empathetic culture, creating empathy champions.
Industry expert Josh Bersin in his blog back in March 2020 urged leaders to put people first, “leaders in a crisis focus on “empathy and compassion first, business second”. If you believe, as I do, in the unlimited potential of the human spirit, you understand that only by making people safe will we ever grow out of this crisis. Giving people money will help, but jawboning the stock market won’t matter. When people feel a sense of safety, trust, and empowerment, growth will return.”
While Bersin concluded the blog by referring to today’s CEO as the Chief Empathy Officer, the first-of-its-kind corporate and home integration calls for focused attention on sowing the seed of empathy deep into the culture, and any such change requires intervention from the leadership, in the present case, an intervention by the introduction of a Chief Empathy Officer.
A study by the Management Research Group found that empathy was the top competence for good leadership and among the three strongest predictors of senior executive effectiveness.
The question that now arises is whether empathy needs to be treated as a skill or as a functionality. Will having a Chief Empathy Officer help cascade the empathy vote throughout the organization, or will it lead to restricting empathy as a responsibility to a select few? Does having a Chief Empathy Officer amplify the importance of the empathy agenda or will that become an easy escape for those who see empathy as a roadblock in business?
While several organizations today are responding to the need of the hour with appointing a Chief Empathy Officer to navigate the crisis before them, how does this role play out in the post-COVID-era? Would the business continue to feel the need for such a leadership role or is this going to be more of a fluid role that can be absorbed with under other functions once the rough waves calm down? The answers will only unfold in due time, however, given the urgent need to infuse empathy into every conversation in the organization to balance wellness and productivity, it is likely to bode well for organizations to have someone with an expertise in the field lead the way.