Belinda Parmar, CEO of the consultancy Lady Geek and author of “The Empathy Era” and “Little Miss Geek,” says, “Enlightened companies are increasingly aware that delivering empathy for their customers, employees, and the public is a powerful tool for improving profits, but attempts to implement empathy programs are frequently hamstrung by the common misconception of it as ‘wishy-washy,’ ‘touchy-feely,’ and overtly feminine. So empathy is de-prioritized, and relegated to the status of just another HR initiative that looks good in the company newsletter. It’s seen as a soft and frilly add-on rather than a core tool.” Parmar says it can be measured and that it’s a hard skill that should be required from the boardroom to the shop floor.
Could empathy lead to your success, even if you’re a new hire?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the employees who prioritize their boss’s needs, interests, challenges and deliver results based on what’s important to their boss are the ones who consistently get noticed for salary raises and promotions. This requires a healthy balance of empathy and emotional intelligence. They’re also smart about keeping track of their accomplishments and saving their list of achievements for performance appraisal time. The empathetic employee schedules a time to meet with her employer based on when it’s convenient for her boss and then shares how she’s been an asset to the team.
Empathetic employees often become leaders
Meghan Biro and Ashoka, recent Forbes contributors, concur that there’s plenty of hard evidence that organizations with happy employees, strong organizational health, empathetic leaders, and maybe even a social mission, outperform their peers. (See the study of more than 600 companies showing that those with organizational health in the top quartile doubled their financial performance: “Beyond Performance” by Scott Keller and Colin Price and the 2014 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For). The advantage of practicing professional empathy, an atunement to the needs of your boss and co-workers combined with healthy emotional intelligence of knowing how to prioritize your energy and time is a trait of a mature employee. This kind of emotional intelligence and focus on the others’ needs is the making of a leader.
The milkshake model for empathetic leadership
In his MBA course, Christensen tells the story of a fast-food restaurant chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales. The company started by segmenting its market both by a product (milkshakes) and by demographics (a marketer’s profile of a typical milkshake drinker). Next, the marketing department asked people who fit this demographic to list the characteristics of an ideal milkshake (thick, thin, chunky, smooth, fruity, chocolaty, etc.). The prospective customers answered and the company responded to the feedback. But to management’s chagrin, milkshake sales didn’t improve.
Then another researcher took a different approach to the situation by trying to deduce the “job” that customers were “hiring” a milkshake to do. He spent a full day in one of the chain’s restaurants documenting who bought milkshakes and when, and whether they drank them while in the restaurant. He discovered that commuters who ordered milkshakes to go purchased 40 percent of the drinks first thing in the morning.
The next morning, he returned to the restaurant and interviewed customers who bought milkshakes to go, asking them what job they had hired the milkshake to do.
“Most of them, it turned out, bought (the milkshake) to do a similar job,” he writes. “They faced a long, boring commute and needed something to keep that extra hand busy and to make the commute more interesting. They weren’t yet hungry, but knew that they’d be hungry by 10 a.m.; they wanted to consume something now that would stave off hunger until noon. And they faced constraints: They were in a hurry, they were wearing work clothes, and they had (at most) one free hand.”
The milkshake was hired instead of a bagel or doughnut because it was relatively tidy and satisfying, and because trying to suck a thick liquid through a thin straw gave customers something to do during their boring commute. Understanding the job to be done, the company could then respond by creating a morning milkshake that was even thicker (to last through a long commute) and more interesting (with chunks of fruit) than the original.
Proven success: Focus on what jobs people need to get done
Several major companies that have succeeded with a jobs-to-be-done method: FedEx, for example, fulfills the job of getting a package from point A to point B as fast as possible. Disney does the job of providing warm, safe, and fantasy vacations for families. OnStar provides peace of mind. YouTube provides fast and easy video access and the ability to share videos.
Procter & Gamble’s product success rate rose dramatically when the company started segmenting its markets according to a product’s job, Christensen says. He adds this marketing paradigm comes with the additional benefit of being difficult to steal. For example, nobody has managed to copy Ikea, which helps its customers do the job of furnishing an apartment right now.
The future of great leadership
Empathetic leaders share an intuitive sense for what’s going on in the world that helps them identify new opportunities faster than their competitors. They get people to care about their vision by making it a shared vision. They start by tapping into the psychology of their target audience, seeking their feedback, and scanning for changes in thought or behavior. When you go a step beyond just hearing words to actively listening to customers, suppliers and employees, your firm will gain a gigantic advantage in creating products that will be in demand.
Those who think about what makes a great leader will have an edge in someday becoming one. Whether you’re a new hire hoping to make a great first impression or a seasoned employee seeking an executive role, strategic, sincere, and balanced empathy will make you a more likable colleague, build your reputation as someone who can be trusted, and in time could be the single trait that helps you move up in your organization.
Beth Kuhel, M.B.A., C.E.I.P., is a career coach specializing in millennials. She writes about career strategies and improving the workplace for The Huffington Post, The Personal Branding blog, TinyPulse.com, and Sharkpreneur magazine, and has been featured in Entrepreneur Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, and BusinessInsider.com. Connect with Beth on Twitter @BethKuhel.