Empathy is so 2019. Here’s what should replace it in 2020

Empathy has almost become a meaningless buzzword, that's why I'm focused on leading with compassion instead.

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If there’s a word that has risen to the top of the business lexicon over the past few years, it’s got to be “empathy.” Everyone from Apple’s Tim Cook, to Warby Parker’s Neil Blumenthal, to Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, has touted empathy as the key to corporate success. Ford engineers even wear an “empathy belly,” to help them understand the experience of pregnant women when designing cars.  

But while the concept of empathy is generally positive, it has some drawbacks. First, as the engineers at Ford could probably tell you, it’s not actually possible to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Second, empathy doesn’t require any action in response. Luckily, there’s a word for empathy in action, and that’s compassion.

As the limits of empathy have started to come to light, I’ve turned my attention to leading with compassion — that is, responding to the concerns and feelings of others with appropriate actions. But building a culture of compassion in the workplace can be challenging. For one, it’s often considered a “soft skill” that we don’t get, or give, much support in developing. And when we do, there’s a very real risk of compassion fatigue, especially when leading a big organization.  

I’m still learning about how best to develop and strengthen this quality. But I’ve already learned a few things about how — and why — to bring more compassion to work.

Find a way to quantify compassion 

There’s a quote by the famous management consultant Peter Drucker: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” This comes to mind when I consider compassion because, much like empathy, it’s not easy to measure — especially when it comes to internal interactions.

Building strong relationships with customers and clients is all about compassion — responding to their needs with appropriate (and swift!) action. Success or failure is easily measured in their continued business or overall satisfaction. But too often, compassion isn’t considered an important factor in interactions with and among coworkers. Small things, like someone slipping out of the office early to tend to their sick pet, or disputes over who will work the overtime shift, often aren’t dealt with in compassionate ways because they aren’t seen as benefiting the bottom line. Despite a growing emphasis on mental health at work, emotional well-being at work is rarely measured.  

On a global scale, some governments are starting to see value in shifting away from looking at financial gain as the sole measure of success. Iceland, for example, just put “well-being” ahead of GDP as an indicator of economic and social health. This shift needs to start happening in the workplace, too. At my company, we’re currently developing a formal process to periodically evaluate how well employees treat their coworkers, and how well-treated they feel, so we can factor that into performance reviews. Having the ability to track and quantify compassion will help us identify areas where we can improve it. Which takes me to my next point: 

Give your team tools to build compassion 

Every workplace has a spectrum of personalities, and not everyone comes equipped with strong emotional literacy. That’s OK. While some people have a natural inclination to respond to people’s feelings, others take a bit more time. We shouldn’t expect every new hire to have a fully developed EQ. Part of leading with compassion is helping people to mature and hone their emotional skills.

At my company we do this in a few ways. The first is by developing a company values that are centered around a compassionate work environment. The key here is that these are reinforced throughout daily interactions, otherwise they run the risk of being meaningless words. It’s not enough to say you understand why a coworker might be frustrated, distracted, or upset. We actively work to resolve, alleviate or constructively address the underlying factors.

To help us do this, we bring in values coaches who work with teams to discuss issues they’ve had communicating, cooperating, or collaborating, and develop a framework to help them work better together. Supporting employees to find the right language to talk through challenges ensures everyone’s perspective is included and responded to in a constructive way. And the result is a formalized charter each team member can refer to as a guide to integrating these values on a daily basis. 

Open the lines of communication

Like most companies, mine has a hierarchy. But this is strictly for the efficiency of running a business — it doesn’t ascribe personal value or dictate who can talk to whom. 

From our interns to our senior leadership teams, we strive to ensure everyone is treated with the same degree of respect. This includes having access to me. While all managers are accountable for creating an environment that encourages open communication, I also make sure I’m available to all my employees to share anything they want with me in confidence — and many of them do.

This isn’t about going “over the heads” of managers — it’s about ensuring healthy communication. Although there is an organizational structure in place, I want my employees to know they can share personal details or work frustrations with someone they feel comfortable with, regardless of their “rank” in the organization. Sometimes that’s their direct manager, sometimes it’s a person from another team, and sometimes, it’s me. 

Importantly, we emphasize that healthy communication is a two-way street. Regardless of who employees choose to turn to, individuals are responsible for their own reactions when something, or someone, brings up a wave of emotion. Compassion means responding appropriately and calmly, and not lashing out when things get tense.      

This might all sound time-consuming — and it can be. It is possible to go so far with compassion that it consumes all your energy as a leader, and as a person. As important as compassion in the workplace is, it’s equally as important to set healthy boundaries. This means realizing that you won’t always be able to resolve every conflict, or make everyone happy. 

And there are definitely times when business decisions are made solely in service of the bottom line, or when I don’t act with as much patience or compassion as I probably should. I’ve learned that that’s OK. 

Part of acting with compassion is about turning it on yourself, as well as others. Making mistakes is inevitable, and sometimes life requires decisions or actions that aren’t completely consistent with your ideals.

At the end of the day, compassion isn’t about doing everything perfectly, it’s about using it as a guiding principle — a north star you can continually come back to and in the process build a better path forward for your employees, your customers, and yourself. 

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