Workplace Empathy: Rewiring Your Company's Care Factor

Question: What is workplace empathy?

Dev Patnaik: Every single one of us understands what empathy is on a personal level, and that’s because we are blessed with the ability to connect with other people, right? We’re born with this biological power to connect with other folks, to step outside of ourselves and walk in someone else’s shoes, to intuitively get where the person is coming from and get their feelings and their point of view.

For an organization, having a widespread sense of empathy is to get every single person in that organization to have an intuitive sense of the people beyond their walls, for the folks who buy our products and services and who ultimately fund our 401(k), the people who actually have mistaken our success. And so we can get, not just the people in market research or marketing, but the people in R&D and finance and HR and IT and legal, everybody in the company to have that kind of gut sense intuition for ordinary people. What we find is that companies do better as a result.

The real power of empathy--and that’s something that surprised us when we started looking at the topic--was, yes empathy will allow you to know things in your gut before the rest of us read about that in the “Wall Street Journal,” and yes it will give you the courage of your convictions to act on something and take a risk on something new. But, the big surprise for us was how much that sense of empathy for the world around you gives people something that companies struggle with, which is to give their folks a sense of mission, to give the people a reason to come into work every day.

And we’ve seen this over and over again that when you connect with the outside world, you someday realize that, wow, there’s all these people out there who were counting on me to do the right thing, right? And so, you start to see your business in a completely different way.

Target is a great example of this for over the last ten years they have stopped competing with Wal-Mart to shave half a cent off the cost of a bottle of detergent. They are actually creating a community and they are creating a place where people love to go hang out. We’ve seen moms who leave their kids at home with their husbands and have a girl’s night out on a Friday night and they go shop at Target together. We’ve seen dads on a Saturday afternoon who are with their kids, and they don’t know where to take them, and there isn’t a park nearby, so they go hang out in Target. 

Topic: Empathy and the financial downturn.

Dev Patnaik: In many ways, the big reset that we’re going through is like a back to the future. It’s going back to the way that companies used to do business. There was a time when people bought things that they needed from companies that made things that had value. And what happened is we let go of that as things have gotten more and more abstract. The financial service industry is foster child for this.

But I’m seeing a fundamental change, and it’s getting back to saying, we need a gut-level intuition and an empathy for people. So we can actually solve their problems because that’s worth paying for.

I’ll give you one example which is not in the book [“Wired to Care”]. I get called to talk about innovation in companies and I often say, “Okay, well that’s great. I want to come and talk about empathy.” And they’re often a little bit leery because it was like, “Hold on, that empathy stuff sounds very touchy feely. We’re IBM or we’re GE. We don’t talk about that. We want to talk about innovation.”

That’s great. And so I have to spend half an hour on the phone convincing them. “No, this is important. Empathy is the key to innovation.”

And I remember I was giving a talk at GE to 300 marketing managers, and we were talking about why empathy matters and how it’s actually the way that you can drive growth.

At the end of the conversation, as I was leaving the building, two guys came up to me and each if them had worked at GE for over 30 years, and so these are people who had worked at GE their entire adult life, and they told me, “You know what, you’re absolutely right. Empathy is what we need around here. We need that gut sense. We need to get back to that. You know what, that’s how we used to do business before Jack Welch, and we’ve just been pushing the money around ever since.”

So, it gives more hope for GE because it tells me there’s something deeper in the DNA there than just following a stock price. But it also tells me that maybe we’ve gotten away from that in the last few years, that we are doing things that are good for the bottom line today, this week, rather than what’s good for the company and its shareholders and its customers over the long term.


Conducted on: June 24, 2009.

Author Dev Patnaik maintains that the ability to understand the feelings of your work colleagues is key to innovation and success.

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