Empathy Telefónica Ryanair

Empathy's growing role in business – Lady Geek's Belinda Parmar, Sarah Shields of Dell and Zoe Osmond, CEO of Nabs tell us why it matters

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By Katie McQuater | Magazine Editor

October 3, 2014 | 6 min read

Empathy has often been dismissed as a ‘non-essential soft skill’, with little or no value in the world of business, but a growing number of people in the communications industry are quickly coming round to the realisation that empathy can be profitable and has a place at the heart of their companies. Katie McQuater takes a look.

Empathy lies at the heart of the communications business; at its very core, marketing is brands’ attempt to engage consumers, often employing empathy to deliver their key messages and express identities.

Yet the businesses behind the messaging may be talking the talk, but failing to walk the walk, as empathy is not a quality associated with the world of business. It is viewed by many as a fluffy, feminine trait with no value in the real world. But a growing movement to re-evaluate empathy and challenge businesses’ hierarchical approach is gaining traction.

Belinda Parmar, CEO of Lady Geek, is spearheading this movement by highlighting the value of empathy in business in her book Empathy Era. In it, Parmar refutes the idea that empathy is a quality to be consigned to the HR department, and instead challenges brands and businesses to embed empathy into the heart of their strategy.

“I had lots of bad experiences working in companies working to ‘the old model’ – an over-reliance on statistics, death by PowerPoint, a very hierarchical approach. I felt that I just didn’t have a voice. It was a very un-empathic culture where myself and many of my peers didn’t seem to get our voices heard.

“The Empathy Era is about transforming corporate culture and getting leaders to put empathy at the heart of their businesses. We’re trying to embed empathy from the shop floor to the boardroom.”

Parmar believes the language used in businesses is often reductionist, reducing companies to machines. Phrases such as “she runs a tight ship” don’t create an environment where people feel they can have their voices heard. In the people-centric industry of creativity, this is damaging.

How to empathise

It takes time and effort to embed empathy into a brand strategy. Here are three tips to get you started...

Empathy can be taught

Telefónica trained staff in its Berlin store on empathy and increased customer satisfaction by six per cent in six weeks. Industry charity Nabs hosts a number of workshops on empathy using techniques such as mindfulness.

It starts with the individual

Leaders should record themselves to assess their body language and speech to see how they can be more empathic, according to Parmar.

Emotional reassurance and trust

Do what you say you’re going to do. Be transparent.

“Empathy was once viewed as a non-essential soft skill, but in the modern workplace it’s grown in importance due to the tangible benefits it can provide,” says Zoe Osmond, CEO of Nabs. “Empathic leaders who take time to understand and listen to one another can empower their teams and build trust, leading to a better work culture, more collaboration and improved productivity.

“It’s a skill that can help modern day managers identify and pre-empt situations, reduce conflict, build better relations and lead to better outcomes for all involved – useful both internally and in client-facing roles.”

It’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. Empathy is profitable: the Empathy Era research found that L’Oréal sales agents who had empathy, for example, outsold those who didn’t by $100,000 a year. And it’s being driven by women. With more women now in leadership positions, Parmar believes it’s starting to get the recognition it needs.

“The most important thing from my perspective is that you have more women in the organisation, and that is creating a different type of model, and that is what I’m most excited about – a new type of corporate culture where diverse voices are heard.”

But what characterises an empathic brand? According to Parmar, empathic businesses are authentic, with leaders that are consistent and encourage new perspectives from employees. Reassurance and trust are also key facets. “Ryanair is a brilliant example of a brand where you feel like you’re not getting quite what you think you should be getting with the hidden charges, though this is changing with the CMO tweeting about how the brand is listening to what people want,” says Parmar.

Sarah Shields, executive director and general manager of Dell UK, has been instrumental in developing the company’s approach to empathy.

“Having a leader that gets in there with you and understands what you’re going through at any given moment is a real tipping point between either being a great leader or a not-so-great leader,” she tells The Drum. “To have your team working with you – not for you – you absolutely need to be there with them and understand them.

“Culturally we have a reluctance towards empathy – there’s a misunderstanding of what is empathy and what is sympathy. Saying to someone ‘You poor thing’ isn’t always successful, but saying to someone ‘I’m here for you, I feel your pain’ is much more powerful and engaging.”

Instead, says Shields, in a business environment empathy enables engagement with and understanding of customers. This requires investment of both time and money, however.

“If you’re going to address an empathy deficit in your business, it isn’t about how empathic you are in your recruitment ads. It’s about how empathic you are in all your internal and external communications. The investment is potentially quite big if you really want to make an impact.”

This article was first published in The Drum's 1 October issue, guest-edited by Cindy Gallop, founder of IfWeRanTheWorld and MakeLoveNotPorn. Get your hands on a copy.

Empathy Telefónica Ryanair

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