Empathy - that ability to truly put yourself in the shoes of another - is a word that seems to fit better in group therapy sessions than in the board room, and yet it is fast becoming recognised as one of the most important skills the modern leader can possess.
High profile scandals have damaged public trust in everyone from bankers and politicians, to supermarkets and celebrities in recent years, leaving businesses reeling, and working hard to rebuild relationships with their customers. Therefore the ability of individuals in leadership roles to build relationships, establish trust and demonstrate empathy, has never been more important.
Additionally, with millennials now progressing from graduate roles into more senior leadership positions, the face of business is changing - and becoming significantly more interested in making emotional and empathetic links with employees, customers and the communities in which they operate.
Consumers in every sector are vastly more sophisticated now than ten years ago, and the instant access to information available through technology means that simple brand loyalty or routine, are no longer the main reason that purchasing decisions are made. The onset of the financial crisis made getting a bargain a point of pride, and changed shopping habits irrevocably. As a result, the old adage that you buy people, has never been more appropriate.
Companies wishing to win business need empathy; a fact recognised by world leading companies such as Tesco, who have incorporated empathy into their leadership skills. Without building sincere and long lasting relationships with customers, business will struggle; and empathy is the foundation on which relationships with customers and colleagues are built.
Empathy is something that cannot be adequately faked or automated. Computers can’t do empathy. It is difficult to beam empathy over the airwaves from an outsourced arm of a business. Empathy requires two or more human beings to make a connection, and this connection builds the relationships which allow business to be done; the simple drive of customer demand is pushing empathy to the fore when we consider the skills most required to succeed in business today.
Understand colleagues, to understand customers
Before we can build the relationships we need with customers, businesses need to have strong internal relationships, with individual managers and teams demonstrating empathy, and having an emotional engagement with the work they do. The idea of empathy in the workplace may make you think of group hugs, high fives or other touchy feely activities, but it really requires little more than truly getting to know each other, taking time to consider another’s feelings and being open to hear and acknowledge the emotional aspects of our lives as they appear through the working day.
If there are deficits in the emotional bank balance - for example, because of unresolved grievances, poor working conditions or training, then this feeling will spill out of the team and impact customer relationships.
Perhaps the main driver of the upsurge in empathy as a core skill, is the fact that many millennials are now moving out of graduate positions, through middle management, and on into more senior decision making roles in businesses. Talk of empathy and emotion in the workplace might have been unthinkable in the cut and thrust office environment of the 1980’s; but that world is long gone, along with the power dressing and giant mobile phones.
As millennials start to access higher ranks in business, their influence on culture will mean that building a high performing team looks different now - millennials are widely accepted to have high expectations of work, be likely to move more frequently than previous generations, and look to learn, develop, and be understood as individuals - all of which require a high degree of empathy from both themselves and others around them.
Providing the individualised career paths, and the flexibility and autonomy demanded by millennials will also mean that managers need to really get to know their teams well, moving office cultures away from the stiff upper lip, and more towards a transparent and warm environment in which talking about ones emotions is not reason to call the staff doctor to attend.
As the millennial movers start to come into positions in which they can truly influence the workplace and culture of business, making it more in tune with their needs, we can bet that empathy, as a standard benchmark of a great leader, is here to stay.