Empowering Corporate Empathy

It’s been a winter wonderland in Denver the last few days, and of course, it reminded me of Christmas (yes yes – I realize I still have ten more months to go). One of my favorite things to do during the winter season is watching cheesy Christmas movies. One of my repeating classics is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Though many have seen it, there are still a few who haven’t so in case you are in the minority let me sum it up: in the movie there is a guy named George who gets an opportunity to see what life would be like without him. He wanders through a world that has no memory of him, and he is dismayed by the plight of his friends and family. Without him, their life is missing the richness that he is used to seeing. As he struggles to come to terms with his bleak surroundings, his guardian angel says a quote that always stuck with me “Strange isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around, he leaves an awful hole. Doesn’t he?” The lesson that I absorb from this profound statement is everyone influences someone. And, to more directly bring me to my topic today, influence is the foundation to creating corporate empathy.

So what, exactly, is corporate empathy? It’s a movement to engage employees to connect with each other as well as influence the organization to care about the world outside of the organization’s own existence. How do you get people to have empathy? It’s something you are born with, and some people have it, and some people don’t. Right? Well it turns out there are these neurons called “mirror neuron” (cubelli neuron) in your premotor cortex that fires when a person acts and also when a person observes the same action performed by another. The cognitive psychologists believe that these neurons form the basis of our capacity for emotions like empathy. What it means is that we all can hone our skills for empathy. However, It might be something you have to work on every day. I had a moment recently where I realized that I need to work on empathy.

One of my colleagues was talking to me about politics. I tend to not engage in topics of politics at work and sometimes not even with my friends. So I nodded along to what this person was saying and I soon realized that I was tuning him out because I didn’t agree with the side of the political spectrum that he was on. He went on to talk about a project, and I was having a hard time engaging back and empathizing with his viewpoint related to something we were working on. That’s not a good thing!

But how typical is that scenario? How many times do we do that? When you don’t agree with someone or clash with their ideas or values, how often do we abandon empathy altogether? How often do we tune people out because we didn’t agree with a viewpoint? I think it’s something we all need to be aware of and try to actively address in our own lives. I know I certainly need to.

So why should we bother? Why should we care about empathy? I find that when we can learn to be empathetic towards someone and some cause, we can influence people and organizations for the better. Think about how you might buy a product from someone because the product connected with your values. Or how you work harder for a person because your manager and you “click.” This is empathy. So how do we create that world? Let’s start with –

  • Eye contact – how often do you walk by someone and don’t bother to say hello? How often do you walk by someone and say hi but you are looking down at your phone or focused on something else? It takes two seconds to make eye contact so let’s do that. We all want to feel acknowledged. You know when someone gives you their full undivided attention and how that makes you feel? Well, let’s give others the same respect that we expect from them.
  • Tone – Do you ever get so “passionate” about a topic that you realize that it’s turning others off because of your tone? Isn’t that interesting? It is a delicate balance. How do you convey your passion but also do it in a way that excites others rather than making them feel overwhelmed? It takes practice. I believe that if we push ourselves to grow and learn to empathize, we can increase our world of influence.
  • Judgment-free zone – We tend to make up stories in our head for situations that might not be true. Let’s be open toward people without making judgments. In an ideal case, we yearn to live in a world where we can acknowledge each other based on similarities rather than our differences. Let’s make that a reality.
  • Technology – I hear a lot of people say that technology disconnects people because we are all attached to our phones versus talking to a person’s face. I disagree. I believe that technology empowers us to be able to reach out faster. So why don’t we use technology to our advantage and help it guide us to know when to reach out to someone or when a face to face meeting is essential?
  • Walking in their shoes – The best way to practice empathy is to let yourself immerse in a topic and explore that journey to see what solutions you can come up with. It will help you realize why people feel a certain way about an issue.
  • Ability to receive – I think we are all capable of learning to empathize but the most difficult aspect is to be able to receive empathy from others. How do you feel when someone empathizes with you? Does that make you uncomfortable? How can we be more open to receiving?

When we can empathize with someone, and they can empathize with you, it allows us to connect at a whole new level. So let’s teach each other empathy and recognize when we are not showing it and let’s turn that around. As “It’s a Wonderful Life” teaches us, we all touch and influence each other’s lives – let’s not waste the connections. Once we learn to do that, we have the power to create corporate empathy.

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