Empathy is a squishy word. Sometimes it’s confused with sympathy or misinterpreted as “being nice.” That isn’t empathy. Empathy is about understanding. Empathy lets us see the world from other points of view and helps us form insights that can lead us to new and better ways of thinking, being, and doing.
The words business and empathy are rarely used together—in fact, for some of us they might even sound oxymoronic, but there are incredible benefits to taking on others’ perspective in the context of our professional lives. That’s what Applied Empathy is about. Empathy is not some out-of-reach mystical power. Instead it is a skill that each of us can make a part of our daily practice and ultimately bring into the organizations we serve.
My aim with Applied Empathy is to present a set a skills and tools that will allow you to:
Applying empathy may seem obvious for one-to-one interactions, and it is a critical part of any good relationship, but it’s also a powerful advantage when applied at the business level to gain perspective within your company’s walls and in the world within which the company operates.
There are countless instances in the business world where companies have missed the opportunity to apply empathy, many of them paying dearly for the oversight.
One of the most infamous was Xerox’s fumbled opportunity to lead the personal computing industry. Back in the 1960s, Xerox’s 914 photocopier revolutionized the business world. At the same time, the company’s innovation facility, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), was fast at work developing other new and insightful products. One of those was the Xerox Alto, the first fully functional personal computer. It had processing power, a graphic interface, and even a mouse. So why isn’t Xerox a computing juggernaut today?
In the 1970s, Xerox’s leadership was largely focused on raking in the massive profits generated by the 914 photocopier—which was not sold but leased to customers, who were charged per page—instead of looking out into the world and using empathy to sense the growing demand for personal computing. They didn’t do anything with the Alto or, frankly, with many of the other great inventions that PARC was churning out. They were preoccupied with their current successes and uninterested in understanding the shifting consumer needs around them. As a result, they missed one of the greatest technology booms the business world has ever experienced.
Another more recent example of a lack of empathic leadership can be seen in the music industry’s inglorious failure to participate in the digital music revolution. While executives stretched their travel and expense accounts to the max and obsessed over CD distribution deals with brick-and-mortar retailers, Napster and LimeWire were hard at work building a completely new, and more empathic, distribution system that aligned with consumers and their needs (though not empathic to the artists or the record industry they were disrupting). Missing that opportunity crushed the major music labels’ business and gave rise to powerhouses such as Apple Music and Spotify.
Would empathy alone have saved those companies from disaster? It’s hard to say. But had they applied empathy more meaningfully in their decision making, they could have recognized new and innovative ways to lead their businesses into the next era.
Fortunately, plenty of companies are applying empathy to solve tough challenges and lead teams with new and powerful insight.
A darling of the start-up world, Warby Parker’s meteoric growth can be closely mapped to its executives’ clear understanding of the “grit” in the retail eyewear experience. Consumers weren’t getting what they needed from any of the big players in the space, and Warby Parker’s founders saw an opportunity to jump into the category offering a more human, service-oriented approach that has been voraciously embraced. (Full disclosure: we’ve worked with them and can attest to their empathic strengths firsthand.)
My own company, Sub Rosa, is a strategy and design studio that works with large, often complex corporations as well as progressive thinkers in government, entertainment, and the start-up world to help them evolve their businesses with empathy. We have worked with some of the world’s most recognizable companies and leaders, and I’m proud that those clients have sought us out because we offer fresh solutions that support their need to explore, learn, and grow.
Our clients come to us because we can help them figure out who they truly are, what they are actually trying to accomplish, and, perhaps most important, show them how to take their goals or their businesses to a higher level.
Empathy lets us better understand the people we are trying to serve and gives us perspective and insight that can drive greater, more effective actions. The seemingly magical quality of empathy is the connection it helps us form with other people. Some of us are born with an overwhelming degree of empathy, while others are callous or even blind to the perspectives of others. The rest of us fall somewhere in between. But empathy is more than just a natural talent; it can also be a process, a learned skill, developed and applied when and where needed.
Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership is available wherever books are sold.