By Jackie Acho, Eva Basilion, and Monica Tanase-Coles
Dear CEO of a Large Organization,
We know you worry about cost. It’s your job and something you instill in everyone throughout your organization. It’s good and right that you do, because you can’t be financially sustainable otherwise. So, when we talk about empathy, we hear you asking, “But what does it cost? I’m tapped out. My budget it set, and there is no room for additional spending.” And we know that you are also wary of people selling you the next big thing to help you lead your company – a technology tool, a team of outsiders, advice that never seems to end. You must protect your organization from investments that don’t have a return.
So, let’s talk about cost. At the most fundamental level, cost = time: an allocation of a person or more to solve a problem, design a system, or just get the job done. Even when you buy tools or products, human time (and raw materials if there is more than knowledge) is baked into the price. Human time is also baked into your cost of adapting that tool or product in to your environment. SAP installations, six sigma training, even strategic planning teams. “Time is money.” It’s true.
So this is where empathy gets very interesting. We’ve said it before, but empathy is not being nice. It’s not sympathy. It’s not even compassion. Empathy is bastardized with these definitions, and many people have devalued empathy as a result.
The first and last step in empathy is getting your schtuff out of the way to see the truth, in others and in situations too. In this way, empathy lays the foundation for innovation –putting you in the zone, encouraging interpersonal resonance, catalyzing ah ha moments, and helping us access those “wrinkles in time” that move us forward much faster than walking in a straight line.
Few people explain realizing individual empathy better than Seung Chan Lim aka “Slim”. Check him out. He takes an engineering approach to empathy and adds a healthy dose of design. We scientists and businesspeople love that.
Jackie had the pleasure of collaborating with Slim in a class at CWRU’s Weatherhead School of Business. He led an exercise toward the end in which he had students face each other and say “tell me the truth” 3 times. People who knew each other got right down to it. Many of the people who didn’t know each other also got to some truth, but it took until the 3rd time. When was the last time someone told you the truth, CEO? Don’t you need it? Don’t you love that? Wouldn’t it save you time if you could cut to the chase? This is what empathy does. It saves you time by cutting to the chase.
Think about it. We carry our schtuff like a badge or honor into battle with each other all day long. We pretend to listen in meetings, but really check our iPhones. We don’t take responsibility for what we don’t say, then try to slow progress if we really don’t agree. The worst thing of all, CEO, is we tell our bosses what we think they want to hear. It doesn’t feel quite right, but it somehow feels safer in today’s system. And people living in fear choose safety first, for themselves and the livelihood of their families. We spend the time (=$) and still don’t get to where we need to go.
So imagine, if people did… empathize.
Imagine if they
…took responsibility for what they don’t say, as well what they say.
…told the truth
…woke up so fully invested that going to work would be a pleasure, like being with good friends.
…got to resonance faster with each other
You know what this is like, CEO. It’s the kind of resonance you have/had with _______. Who is it? There is someone, right?
The upshot of Slim’s message is this: realizing empathy (i.e., being able to do it) gets us more efficiently to resonance with other human beings (or even materials) toward a more universal truth. And this is the stuff of which innovation is made. So, bottom line. If you practiced empathy, you’d get to innovation more quickly. You would save time (= $). Empathy collapses time.
But you can’t just implore your people to empathize. They’d look at you as if you lost your mind, or at the very least, they wouldn’t have a clue how to go about it. This is partly because most of your current organizational systems sap humanity and empathy, especially as people rise. We realize this has implications for some of your managers and peers, CEO. To tell you the truth, it’s a problem.
What we know from working with CEO’s like you in large organizations is that you can steward a “currency of empathy” in the course of your day job. You already do strategy, right? You already have review processes, right? Our guess – from the data on lack of innovation in large organizations like yours – is that you try to save time via linear efficiency in these processes, but you sacrifice empathy and actually end up wasting time. A lot of time – precious hours which employees could allocate to being whole people beyond work (as parents, community members, pet lovers, artists, etc.), which would eventually make them wiser leaders.
Finally CEO, ask yourself: what is the cost of NOT paying attention to empathy and the humanity of your stakeholders — employees, customers, suppliers, investors, society? Companies that explicitly value people as core to their business perform better financially, sustaining ~2-5 times higher stock performance compared to the S&P 500. How will you compete against them?
You are leading at the precipice of a whole new era, CEO. It’s disconcerting, but it doesn’t have to be bad. You can get in front of this. You must.
Thanks to everyone who has reached out to share thoughts and get involved in our survey. It’s encouraging that so many of you are ready. The invitation stands: let us know if you are interested in taking a survey to find out what YOU need to do to steward empathy and innovation in your organization. You can reach us at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Special thanks to Jennifer Thomas, whose thoughtful commentary inspired this post.
Pictures courtesy of http://stoppingoffplace.blogspot.com/2011/02/wrinkle-in-time.html taken from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time