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Empathetic leadership births superior service

Amid today’s communication revolution, there’s a real empathy gap. To engage people, customers included, leaders need to activate soft skills like listening.

That watch you wear to measure how many steps you take each day says you haven’t been moving enough. And the mobile app for your bank just beeped—your balance is lower than normal. All of a sudden, the security camera outside your house comes online; luckily, it was just the Amazon delivery guy who triggered the motion sensor. 

The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), which blends established and emerging technologies, is well underway. As exciting and convenient as these developments are, when you consider them alongside the daily Zoom meetings, Netflix streamings, and Twitter scrollings that define most of our waking hours the screen time starts to add up. More importantly, it can even start to feel stressful.

Well over 7 billion internet of things (IoT) devices are operating worldwide today. All sorts of services are already automated, and soon enough your home, work, and your city will use real-time data and algorithms to make “smart” decisions.  A survey by PwC found that 90% of American consumers already use at least one 4IR technology regularly, and that number continues to grow. 

While nearly three-quarters of American consumers say they plan to use smartwatches or fitness trackers within the next year, just 63% of them say they are comfortable with such devices. This is hardly surprising. If anything, statistics like these illustrate emerging anxieties about the rapid pace of change—even among people who willingly adopt these new technologies. These concerns range from the safety of personal data being shared to the possibility of automation-induced job loss. Kai-Fu Lee, the author of AI Superpowers, has predicted that nearly half the world’s workforce will be displaced by AI-enabled technology within 15 or so years.

With new technological growth and disruption becoming an everyday occurrence across every industry, economic and professional anxiety, much like personal anxiety, is more common than ever before. When the future is uncertain, leaders may not always be able to provide concrete answers. What they can offer, however, is empathy. The ability to slow down, listen, and respond to the human needs of people around you will benefit not only your employees but your customers too.

Managing the whole person

A leader’s job is to foster an environment that motivates and moves people towards positive actions. In addition to charting a clear path to a goal, this happens by showing compassion, articulating a sense of purpose, demonstrating sound judgment, and—most importantly—making sure every employee feels valued.

A Google study famously sought to pinpoint the most important features of effective teams. The biggest single takeaway from “Project Aristotle”—as the study was called in reference to the ancient Greek philosopher’s maxim that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”—was that the groups where people exhibited “soft” skills like empathy and emotional intelligence outperformed those composed of people with stronger technical expertise.

“As long as everyone got a chance to talk, the team did well,” says Anita Woolley, the main author of the study. “But if only one person or a small group spoke all the time, the collective intelligence declined.”

Connecting with people doesn’t mean erasing all interpersonal boundaries, but it does mean training yourself to read signals and adjust to each person’s limits. Sometimes it’s as simple as demonstrating a willingness to listen. One colleague shares everything about their personal lives, while another prefers privacy. One employee fears a new technology will eventually make his job obsolete, while another is optimistic about their growing team. A good leader knows who’s who, and responds accordingly. Treating everyone fairly is not the same as treating everybody the same.

The Situational Leadership Model developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in 1982 is a useful primer for empathetic leadership in a managerial context. The authors divided employees into four categories based on their abilities and willingness to contribute to a cause: unable and unwilling, unable but willing, able but unwilling, and able and willing. While always accounting for context, leaders are tasked with placing the people who follow them in one of those categories.

situational leadership model

As your office adopts some new work management software, a 25-year-old employee (willing and able) might adapt with ease. But an older worker might take longer to get the hang of things (willing but temporarily unable). In another context, those exact same people might play alternate roles. Tasked with managing a project and a team, that 25-year-old might show their inexperience (willing but unable), while the older worker (willing and able) guides their project to a smooth resolution.

The big takeaway here is that every employee perceives a situation differently. Their reasons could range from the position they hold to their personal and professional experience level. Getting a sense of your employee’s attitudes and perspectives is essential for making sure you are doing right by your people and making decisions that are in everyone’s best interest. Whether employees embrace a change or endure it anxiously depends on a leader’s ability to properly contextualize that moment to the person they are communicating with.

After all, leadership is not about delegating tasks; it’s about managing relationships.

The switch from a transactional view to a more holistic relationship has been a game-changer for many legacy businesses in recent years, and it has become impossible to ignore.

Passing it on to customers

Back in 2014, the discount airline RyanAir changed many of its policies in reaction to complaints from its customers—loosening restrictions on baggage, doing away with hidden charges, and implementing assigned seating. While previous policies had been designed to reduce costs (and thus boost profits), RyanAir soon discovered the obvious: giving passengers what they want was even more profitable. Profits rose 30% that year because the company stopped making decisions based on spreadsheets and algorithms. Instead, they started thinking like their customers. 

If I‘d only known being nice to customers was going to work so well, I’d have started many years ago

CEO Michael O’Leary

Though hardly the lone authority on empathy or management, Hersey and Blanchard’s core argument—that people are different and, thus, need to be treated as individuals—feels undeniable today. This same mode of thinking applies to customers and takes on an added dimension amid the onset of the 4IR. 

With an explosion of digital communication tools—messaging, video, VR, and more—the fact is that there is a very real technological wedge that exists between a business and its customers. In order to reach customers across all these digital layers and channels, businesses have to lean on one group of technology that connects disparate pieces of communication and then another group to help them make sense of all the data and information they receive. It’s like playing a game of broken telephone that stretches across the entire world.

There is incredible comfort in the fact that innovations of the 4IR are increasingly capable of learning and adapting to what customers want. In theory, this capability means businesses can offer better products and customer service than ever before. But even as companies spend millions of dollars on technology that makes coordination, collaboration, and communication across multiple digital ecosystems seamlessly possible, there remains a very real need for infusing humanity in the process. And there’s no playbook for that.

The need to relate is very human. Technology makes collaboration easy, but cooperation requires a human touch. When leaders strive for more than simply connecting their customers to their business or giving their employees the tools to collaborate remotely, they can step back and view situations in a more socially-aware way and address problems more effectively than any algorithm.

Empathetic businesses are those that are willing to meet their people wherever they are. In return, people—customers and employees included—reward them with their support and patronage. In practice, this looks like loyalty. During the COVID-19 crisis, many local restaurants pivoted to delivery, and in return, people helped prop them up through the tough times by ordering take-out. The American telecommunications giant Verizon provided materials for children stuck doing their schoolwork at home, in addition to free data. Subscribers, then, rewarded the telco with continued business. All good markers of an empathetic business. 

Technology can obscure the connection between businesses and their customers if used inexpertly, but it can also present leaders with tools to better understand and serve their customers from a place of empathy. It’s really a matter of perspective.

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