Original publication in LinkedIn on septembre 11th 2019
Two European telecoms had partnered to develop a new product. Each had a team of engineers devoted to the product, but those team members each stayed in their own company headquarters, never seeing the other, even though they were working in the same city. The teams emailed each other—and soon the partnership broke down as the emails devolved into a flame war.
A consultant called in to help with the crisis had a simple solution: he got the two teams together for an offsite where they had beers together and got to know one another. The resulting empathy, he knew, would heal the split. The new product was delivered on time.
With the faster pace of change and disruption, markets and teams have become more diverse than ever. And alongside the digital whirlwind and the emergence of artificial intelligence, the human side of work, paradoxically, matters more than ever. Our relationships with colleagues, clients, and business partners will play a major role in the organizations that rise to the top and those that flounder. Empathy, our ability to understand and relate to others, will be key to success for organizations and their employees.
Empathy Bridges Cultural Differences
Take the increase in global business relations as companies go multi-national, markets become global, and the workplace itself morphs into an international reality. People who excel in empathy are most successful at leading cross-cultural teams and managing global customers. Understanding others’ points of view creates bridges across cultures. This is critical, for example, on teams who may never meet each other in person, yet need to communicate effectively.
On international assignments, empathic leaders get along well with people from very different backgrounds and cultures, and can express their ideas in ways the other person will understand. They also quickly pick up on unspoken cultural norms, enabling them to have smoother relationships.
Research shows that emotional intelligence (EI) is a crucial predictor of cultural adjustment, which means better outcomes on overseas assignments. Global managers with strong EI were able to adapt to new cultures and so received more positive feedback from their supervisors. In contrast, managers with low EI were more likely to struggle to adapt to a new culture and end their assignment early. By reducing the cultural gap, emotional intelligence enables managers to find commonality and build connections while on an international assignment, both in and outside of work. The result: success for their career and organization.
Build Loyalty in the Face of Change
Then there’s the relentless pace of mergers and acquisitions, during which the most effective leaders must recognize and deal with their employees’ unspoken feelings, such as fear, in order to successfully motivate and inspire them. Leaders who empathize with the emotions that uncertainty or change bring can find resonance even when delivering bad news.
Rosa Chun at the Manchester Business School found that a major factor in the low success rate of mergers results from a lack of understanding of the human side of such a disruption, and the emotions that roil within employees while companies are integrating. Too many organizations focus on the obligatory aspects of a merger—ensuring legal compliance, maintaining revenue, and keeping shareholders satisfied—while ignoring the human side of mergers and their emotional cost.
Particularly during a merger, clear communication can make the difference between satisfaction and dissatisfaction, loyalty and poor morale. In Chun’s study of a major pharmaceutical company that has grown through mergers and acquisitions, empathy was found to be the most desirable characteristics leaders could display during a merger. Organizational empathy, Chun found, yielded “employee loyalty, perceived job security, satisfaction, and emotional attachment” during and after a merger. By paying attention to the human side of mergers, leaders avoid letting the merger become an organizational crisis.
How to Strengthen Empathy
A first step in strengthening our own empathy might be simply taking some moments amid the distractions of life to care about the emotions and suffering of those around us, particularly those impacted by our decisions. Further steps might include:
Active listening. Active listening is vital to relationships that work—letting us forge deeper connections throughout our lives. Showing genuine interest in what the other person is saying and feeling puts this into action, for example by asking follow-up and open-ended questions. Once you begin to strengthen your connection with someone, you can use what you learn to inform your future conversations.
Open up. You can complement active listening by opening up yourself. Sharing something deeply personal—such as a difficult experience or current struggle—lets us share our emotions and connect with others on a deeper level. If you’re a leader and find it difficult to disclose your emotions to your team, try talking with a colleague first.
Try well-wishing. Research has shown that people who spend time each day wishing well to themselves and others create a sense of ease, kindness, and greater well-being. In a well-wishing practice, we extend compassion to ourselves, our families and friends, our colleagues, and even people in our area we do not know. For a simple well-wishing practice, choose a routine activity such as walking your dog or driving to work to do a silent practice. Offer silent good wishes to the people nearby, to the people with whom you will be meeting with next, to those with whom you just met, or even to yourself.
Whether you’re preparing for an international assignment, leading a merger, or simply want to improve connections throughout your life, empathy is crucial for leadership success and personal well-being.
Written by Daniel Goleman