Empathy in the organization

In their excellent book Humanize, authors Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter share their insights into why a truly successful business needs to take the reasons social media has enjoyed exponential growth as a business imprint, and implement it across the organization.

It takes more than simply activating staff on social media and being more “approachable” as a business on the social web – it’s a complete mindset and culture change, for which many organizations today are still not ready for.

It’s probably one of the best business books on this topic today, and is highly recommended.

But as well as offering a roadmap into why organizations need to adapt the social mindset to succeed in today’s business landscape, Humanize – and the underlying concepts within it – raises another, much more important factor: that of empathy as a social currency.

There’s More to Being Human Than Simply Being a People Business

Leading website Ragan.com, a destination for communications and PR professionals globally, published an article detailing the case of a waitress that worked at pub restaurant chain Hooters.

In the article, Sandra Lupo shares how she had to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumour. As a result of the surgery, she was left bald and sporting a scar from where the surgery left its mark.

Upon returning to Hooters, she was advised by her boss – via the Regional Manager for that particular locale – that she would have to wear a wig to hide her baldness.

Lupo couldn’t afford to pay for the wig; the manager of the restaurant wouldn’t cover the cost. Lupo wore a borrowed one which caused scalp irritation so she stopped wearing it, her hours were cut as a result, and because of this chain of events Lupo quit.

She’s now suing the restaurant from a disability angle, which the restaurant is contesting.

Lupo’s case, and the article at Ragan.com, raises a key point that many organizations are failing to address today, when looking to turn their business into not only a social business, but one where the culture throughout is pervasive with the right mindset to begin with, from the top down.

We’ve spoken with, and helped, several organizations that have implemented cultural shifts. Shifts that:

  • Have enabled employees to become social ambassadors;
  • Have identified weak processes and pivoted where needed;
  • Have empowered people of all levels to help drive decisions because they’re the most suitable to do so, even if – by rank and seniority at the organization – they’re more junior.

And while this shift is important and offers validation of where we believe business needs to be moving, there are still many organizations that employ this approach and yet forget the core tenet of being human, or a social business, or a people-led organization.

And that tenet is empathy.

Empathy is a Social Currency

The greatest customer service assistant – whether in a retail environment or on the other end of a phone line in a call centre environment – knows that when a customer complains, it’s almost universally never directed at them in person.

Rather, it’s the brand that’s coming under fire. With that knowledge, the CSA can adopt two approaches:

  • Tow the company line no matter what claims the customer may have that could be counter to the organization’s edict;
  • Apply empathy to the situation, placing themselves in the customer’s shoes, and working together to resolve the matter with no need for an escalation process to be invoked.

The former option may be the company’s preferred method, when working to the letter of the law, but it’s the latter that will leave a far more satisfactory outcome and potentially set that customer on the path to becoming a true brand advocate.

This approach has been taken with the more successful companies on social media; accepting that there will always be instances where a message was lost, a promotion was poorly timed, or a response took longer than normal.


As social media opens up multiple channels for the connected consumer to air grievances on, so the need grows for organizations to move away from just being a people business when it comes to customers, and adopt to being a provider in the empathy business as well.

But this should absolutely not be restricted to the customer on an external basis only – it should also be extended to the internal customer as well.

The Culture of Empathy for the Internal Customer

Smart organizations know that employees are also customers. They may not always buy the company product – that purchase still needs to earned by delivering on the sales promise – but they do help shape the purchase decisions of their family, friends and social connections.

Even away from the immediate connections, your employees – and their passion for the organization – are core to how your bottom line is affected.

When potential customers contact a business with regards a product, they don’t care about the sales team now. They’ve already researched the product online and through trusted peers, with 71% of consumers making a purchase based on social media referrals and 74% of consumers preferring social network peer connections to influence the decision-making process.

With the traditional sales team now being bypassed for their recommendations, customers are looking to talk directly with employees immediately attached to the product or service the inquiry is about.

According to Inc., if that employee isn’t up to speed with the product and the company’s support, future plans, comparisons to competitor products, hands-on support and more, that customer becomes a lost opportunity and will move on to your competitor.

As every organizational development trainer knows, the valued employee not only stays with the organization longer; they want to be an embedded part of the organization across multiple areas, and not just where their current position may limit them to.

And the way to value the employee? Empathy.

In the case of Sandra Lupo and Hooters, it could be argued that Hooters did nothing wrong legally. If part of the Hooters “experience” is the physical make-up of the waitresses, then Hooters could have a case that Lupo’s appearance didn’t match the company prerequisite, no matter how questionable we may feel that stance is (if, indeed, that is the company stance when defending the suit).

But the company line isn’t always the best one; nor does it have to be strictly adhered to.

The greatest leaders know that the ability to divert from a course of action, or a path that’s always been trod, is the biggest differentiator between a good company and a great one.

In the case of Hooters, the cost of providing a custom wig for a waitress would allow them to maintain the outward requirements of front-facing waitresses, while understanding and alleviating the pain of someone whose appearance is temporarily “different” through hugely unfortunate circumstances.

Instead of facing a legal case, they have shown belief and support for the people behind their company’s success – the very cultural approach that turns a people business into a human organization.

The Path to Empathy Starts Here

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is in thinking the only requirement to be successful on social media – or business, in general – is to be human. That is, be your customer’s friend and speak to them as one.

Yet, as Humanize shows, and as many brands have found out, “being human” is not the same as humanizing your organization. Nor is it something your customers truly want.

In a report commissioned by the Corporate Executive Board, one of the key highlights that the report identified is consumers prefer simplicity in the decision-making process, leading to an 86% chance of interest turning into a purchase. Perhaps even more tellingly, only 23% actually cared about a brand relationship (or friendship), which counters the posit you need to be friends with your customers.

CEB report

Instead, the most successful organizations were the ones that were empathetic, in the word’s truest sense:

…the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; – Merriam Webster dictionary.

By understanding what it means to empathize, an organization can implement the culture needed to serve both internal and external customers to drive increased loyalty, engagement, advocacy and collaboration through involvement across the board.

Understanding the Mindset of Employees and Customers

Tracking software with advanced text analytics algorithms are beginning to identify true nuances of conversations between people. Nouns, verbs and adjectives can be layered upon the bigger conversation, and detect mood swings, emotional states, hidden messages and more.

Externally, being aware of these states of mind can help organizations prepare a message for individual customers (based on group personas as well as individual ones) that help show empathy to a current situation, and how your brand can help.

Internally, with tools like Yammer being widespread across many organizations, organizations can identify an employee who feels unappreciated or who has a great idea that isn’t being promoted. This clearly needs treading carefully with regards privacy and the employer/employee relationship, but is worth the effort to agree on with all parties.

Experiencing the Feelings of Another

There’s a reasonably popular television show called Undercover Boss, that explores what happens when the CEO of an organization is heavily disguised and placed into the workforce for a week, to see how well the company is run and identify the great people doing great things.

While not every organization’s CEO needs to do the same, remembering what it was that made your company such a great place to work in the first place is something that should be revisited often.

Adopt an open office policy where every employee’s views can be heard without bias or fear of recourse; spend a day on the job of various department workers; visit the facilities provided, like cafeteria and the quality of services provided to employees while in your care. Be an employee again to experience where your organization needs to make changes.

From a customer point of view, follow their footsteps at every touch-point of their connection to your organization. How does customer service handle their call; what does tech support look like; how are your resellers treating them; how are your complaints heard online when voiced? Be the customer again and resolve the issues before your competitors do.

Being a people organization is one thing; being an organization where people are human and empathize with the flaws as well as the strengths of other humans connected to the organization, both internally as well as externally, is where the true people part comes into play.

The challenge is yours to accept.

A version of this post originally appeared on the ArCompany blog.