#SXSW – A Crash Course in Empathy and Leadership

Empathy now sits at the top of the list of desired job skills for candidates, outranking work ethic and communication. But why? What is empathy, and why is it important for business leaders?

That’s what Michael Ventura, CEO of Sub Rosa, covered in his packed SXSW session: A Crash Course to Empathy in Leadership.

What is Empathy?

Empathy starts from one of the fundamental facets of human behavior: a desire to understand and be understood. Ultimately, we all want to tell our stories and be able to hear the stories of the people.

This desire to understand and be understood is often lost in the modern workplace though, which is why we need to talk about empathy more and understand what it really means.

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Ventura started by defining the three types of empathy: affective, cognitive, and somatic.

Affective, sometimes called emotional empathy, is tough to bring into the business world because it’s emotional and often inherent. In other words, it’s difficult to teach and train people to have affective empathy.

Cognitive is the most relevant form of empathy for the workplace because it’s the more cerebral. In this case, cognitive empathy is all about perspective taking, which can help various aspects of your business.

Somatic empathy is when you feel sympathy pains for others. This is most common in nurses and medical professionals because they are surrounded by pain and suffering every day, but it is the least discussed form of empathy in the workplace because it’s less common in traditional business settings.

Ventura focused mostly on cognitive empathy because it’s centered around self awareness and gaining a richer understanding of those around you—both of which are advantageous in the workplace.

It’s important to start with knowing that nobody is wholly self aware, but if we can start to step outside ourselves, we can start to build empathy.

Why do we Need to Apply Empathy?

Empathy is useless unless we act on it to make a difference. By applying empathy, we’re able to improve four core areas of ourselves that translate into organizational success.

First, we can collaborate more intimately when we’re more empathetic. The best teams are made up of people from different backgrounds and perspectives, so if you try to lead teams in a one size fits all manner, you will fail. You need to take steps to understand who’s in the room with you in order to unlock the potential of your team.

Second, empathy can help us understand others deeply. By recognizing that each individual on your team has had different experiences in their lives, you will be able to understand where they are coming from when they make decisions or contributions to the team.

Third, empathy helps us perceive our individuality. Even though we’ll never be wholly self aware, we can use empathy to recognize our own strengths and weaknesses and have a better understanding of how to use other people’s strengths to fill the gaps.

Finally, we can create with versatility. By understanding that you’re not the best person for every job, you can better utilize your employees and peers to be nimble and move quickly.

It’s Not Easy

The second thing leaders should know off the bat is that cultivating an empathetic culture is not easy and it slows things down before it speeds things up. As a leader you need to be willing to encounter new truths and use them to shift your culture.

How Can You Start?

Ventura outlined four distinct ways you can calibrate your teams to put empathy into action:

Objective versus Subjective Solutions 

Determine whether you and your team seek objective versus subjective solutions. This will help you as a leader in figuring out how your team(s) work together. If you have a team full of objective seekers, but you’re a subjective seeker, it’s important to be aware of the differences in order to work better together. If you have a different solution type, you’ll probably want to change the way you frame and present your ideas in order to reduce friction.

Top-Down or Bottom-Up Culture

Next, you’ll want to determine whether you have a top-down or bottom-up culture. Ventura used his experience of teaching a seminar at West Point Academy to point out the differences between the military’s very top-down structure versus his experience at startups which are the polar opposite. Perspective taking for top-down organizations is a huge thing to recognize because the decisions are not often based on consensus. For example, Cadets at West Point don’t operate in the same mindset as employees at a 50 person tech startup — all because the decision making process is vastly different.

Human-Centered Thinking versus Ecosystemic Thinking 

The third thing to consider in order to calibrate your team is whether you engage in human-centered thinking or ecosystemic thinking. To put this in simpler terms, who do you need to be thinking about? Is it customers, employees, shareholders, board members, or constituents? By asking yourself what you’re solving for on your team, you’ll be able to determine where you need insight and who can provide it.

Passive versus Proactive Leadership 

Last, you need to acknowledge whether you have a passive or proactive leadership team above you. A lot of the time, this is where leaders and teams can fall short because executive buy-in is so necessary for organizational success. If you have a leadership team that is focused only on playing it safe, but you have a team that loves big ideas, then you will not find alignment whereas if your team is aware of the leadership team’s perspective, they will be able to empathize in more effectively.

How to Understand the World Around Us

As cheesy as it sounds, if we want to understand the world around us, we need to start by understanding ourselves. Ventura outlined the 7 empathic archetypes for us to help identify ourselves:

1. Sage – people tend to trust you because you are present.

2. Inquirer – you are a great question asker and interrogate assumed truths.

3. Convener – you creatively anticipate the needs of others, you know how to hold space and how to make people comfortable to talk.

4. Confidant – you are an excellent listener and don’t listen while planning what you want to say.

5. Cultivator –  you are a big picture person and you purposefully nurture.

6. Seeker – you are daring, confident, and you’re unafraid to take risks or pivot.

7. Alchemist – you’re the great experimenter and you understand success by failure.

As a leader, having your team identify which archetypes they are can be a great exercise not only for them as individuals, but also for the team as a whole. If you find that you have a team full of inquirers, you might be able to find answers to why your team doesn’t deliver on projects as quickly as other teams. You should be identifying the gaps in your team members and hiring for different archetypes.

If you want to connect with people meaningfully, you’ll need to combine all of the archetypes.

Be Honest With Yourself

Just remember that this entire process takes time, so be honest with yourself about where you are, but don’t get stuck in the exploration phase forever. Ventura warned that many leaders will get caught up in identifying all of the archetypes and calibrations without ever making meaningful change, so be sue to get you team on board early and involve them in the process.

Ventura ended the talk with 7 encouragements for leaders looking to become more empathetic:

Be curious (be willing to ask the question you wouldn’t normally ask)
Be honest (be honest with yourself and the questions you’re answering)
Be vulnerable (this is where growth happens)
Be open minded
Be selfless
Be undeterred
Be brave

The most important thing to remember is that you can expect results with empathy.

With empathy, decisions are understandable and inclusive; teams are motivated and collaborative; and companies become flexible and responsive.

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