October 3, 2018

Finding your empathic business opportunity

Businesses worldwide love buzzwords. Once they find one they like, they will use it over and over until it loses its meaning in many cases. Among the current favourites are disruption, blockchain, cryptocurrency, and so on. One that I’d like to touch upon is “empathy”.

Empathy is one of those words that has become so overused in the business context that many people have lost sight of what it really means — if they ever knew at all. For many people, when they hear the word empathy, related words that come to mind are soft, compassionate, sensitive, sympathetic, kind or weak.

Books, articles, blogs and other content have proliferated on the subject of empathy and its importance in business, to the point where people feel overwhelmed by the clutter. Some believe “empathy” as a trend is doomed to die of overexposure and be replaced by the next buzzword to come along.

I disagree. I don’t think empathy will be a passing trend. And empathy is not at all about being soft or weak and has nothing to do with sympathy. Empathy is about understanding and about truly seeing the perspective of others. This has powerful implications for businesses.

Take a look at the most successful examples of empathy. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has used empathy to revive the fortunes of a once-pioneering company that many feared was losing its way. He not only brought the company back from the brink of irrelevance, but also significantly increased its market value. And he did all that by transforming the mindset of Microsoft and its people from ego to empathy.

Michael Ventura, CEO of the award-winning strategy agency Sub Rosa, uses the same concept of empathy to solve complex problems for his clients. For example, it worked with General Electric (GE) on overcoming women’s fear of going to their mammography appointment. By applying empathy, they created a space for these women to share their experiences and through this, were able to solve the problem.

Both Nadella and Ventura proved that empathy isn’t a passing fad — it is a belief system that you as a business leader must live and inspire your people to emulate. Empathy can be practised in many different ways and it can be used to solve real-life problems that affect your business.

In his book Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership, Mr Ventura writes: “Using empathy to solve problems always starts from the same place.” To begin, he suggests using a framework called the Empathy Venn (EV). (You probably recall Venn diagrams — overlapping circles that help to illustrate relationships between various factors — from your undergrad days.)

Here’s what you need to consider for an EV in order to reveal the empathic opportunity in your business.

First, understand and examine how your company works. As a leader, you know your business inside-out. But you need to dig deeper and truly understand the inner workings. For starters, consider your current products and services, the teams, management, brand and so on.

Second, understand all the different types of consumers your organisation serves. Most organisations think of their “consumers” as simply the end-buyers of their products or services. However, Mr Ventura encourages you to think about your company’s broad “audience”, be it end-consumers, the media, the community and any other stakeholders.

Last, understand the context surrounding your organisation. Look at your business in the bigger picture and understand what’s going on around it. This can mean direct competitors, trends and so on.

When you create a circle for each one of these factors and then plot them on a Venn diagram, they may overlap and create a connection. The overlap is where your empathic business opportunities lie.

The empathic business opportunity can be anything from wanting to be seen as a more innovative company or to be a top-of-mind brand. Once you and your organisation have fixed on the empathic business opportunity you want to focus on, consider your organisation from internal and external standpoints.

To begin, assess the internal elements in your organisation. First, the people, processes and principles are what determine your company’s culture and the impact on behaviour. Second, products and services are what sustains your company’s culture.

Once the internal elements are aligned, there are external elements to consider. First, organisations must be clear on the conversations they want to have — what, how and with whom to communicate. Second, organisations should consider consumer behaviour. Third, through conversations, nurture the relationship. Last, consider what kind of memory you want to engrave in your consumers’ minds of your brand.

Applied empathy doesn’t have to feel irrelevant in our lives just because the term is being overused. When something holds so much proven power, you must grab that opportunity and use empathy to guide your organisation to a whole new level of success.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre.  She can be reached by email at arinya_t@seasiacenter.com or www.linkedin.com/in/arinya-talerngsri-53b81aa  For daily updates, visit www.facebook.com/seasiacenter 

For more on the new language of leadership, visit https://www.seasiacenter.com/SEAC/thenewlanguageofleadership/