There are so many variations on what it means to serve your customer- the person who gives you money to do what you do. It is a challenge to see how to prioritize the needs of others with who we are as business owners and professionals. If the customer is always right- then what does it mean when we don't fit them or have /do what they need? Should we abandon the idea that the customer is right? Should we do what they need even if it's not right for us? How do we show compassion in a context that is ultimately about the exchange of money?
The Dark Side of Compassion
Most people look at empathy as a no-brainer "must-do" for anyone hoping to succeed in business. "Of course!" We all shout. "Empathy is just the right thing to do". But are there times when it isn't? When presenting a hard edge is the right move instead of your open arms and warm/fuzzy sentiment (that's not true empathy anyways...let me explain). Owning a business and succeeding in it means being aware of and dillegent about your bottom line. You will only be around for years to come if you are good at this. Where does empathy fit in that?
For some professionals and entrepreneurs the balance of empathy and business savvy is a minefield of ethical dilemma. Where is the line where giving is giving too much and compassion becomes a liability? I have seen too many wonderful and warm-hearted people feel they because they have the capacity to give they should give everything. Absolutely there is a place for gratitude and generosity. BUT empathy is NOT giving until it hurts; until it hurts you and your business. That isn't what empathy is and it's not how to practice it in your professional role. For those in the helping professions this can be extremely difficult. When working with clients who have dire circumstances and in industries where there is an expectation of supporting people who are at risk-empathy is often translated as doing work for free or doing more work than the system supports. How do we balance the client's needs, empathy and our definition of being valued?
The shallow and mis-applied concept of "being a giver" leads to burn out, resentment and scarcity thinking in the market place. It leaves entrepreneurs and professionals in a place of resentment around their worth and the services they offer. In truly sad scenarios these valuable people shut down and shut out opportunities to give and to have impact in order to protect themselves from the dark side of compassion. This leads to the end of amazing companies and the slow bleed of innovation as the fist tightens around protecting ourselves from the forces of commerce and the expectations of others.
For women in the business world this can be particularly difficult to navigate. Giving might be who you are and why you got into your industry in the first place. There are a multitude of layers for women who feel the pressure to compete but also want to give back. Often women under value who they are thinking that this kind of decision making reflects empathy. Unfortunately the act of undervaluing ourselves causes others to undervalue us as well. We charge less and do more hoping that our compassion translates into significant impact...this doesn't work. Compassion is NOT the opposite of value.
Understanding Empathy As a Business Strategy
It can seem quite superficial and motivated by fiscal feedback to engender compassion into a corporate strategy. Are you doing it because you care or just for the sake of your company's image? Despite the image of corporations to project compassion and retain value- empathy has a legitimate place in strategy for both small and large businesses. So- to steer clear of the "dark side" and stay firmly in the place where you are both compassionate and valued the business owner or professional must have an intimate knowledge of what drives them in the realm of compassion. Initiatives that aren't grounded in the persona of the leader fall flat and don't put down roots inside of a company. People know its not legitimate and wont take it seriously. Or- they might resent being asked to participate in something that doesn't seem to reflect the character of the leadership they know from day to day. If the synchronicity of who the "boss" is every day doesn't fit with the call to action- then no one gives from the heart and empathy is still a pipe dream. The first step in developing a strong cultural drive towards social initiatives is to do a self- check about who you are as a leader and what type of actions suit you. Doing a self-check like this can reveal the "dark side" you might not want to look at. That's ok- do it anyways.
The second piece of this is to secure the buy-in of those around you. One lone ranger in a company has very limited reach. But- getting your team to grab a hold of what you are doing and why- now that gets things moving in a big way. Getting feedback from your team about what you want to do and where they see it having an impact can create a team approach instead of top-down thinking.
You'll be able to see when you have over-stepped the goal of empathy and go "dark" if your team feels they can give you feedback. The other great piece of this is that once this has become the culture of your company you will attract like-minded people who care as much as you do. Those who don't will self-select to leave your team and not come back. That's a good thing- let that happen.
Growing a culture of empathy is not as simple as stating your vision statement or doing whatever the consumer asks of you to gain market-share. Its a culture of joining your client in their need- not fixing it. Yes I said it- don't fix what's broken if you can't. If it's beyond your role- leave it there. Empathy is letting them know that you hear them, that you're listening and it matters that they tell you. Don't minimize the experience people are having by reminding them of how much they have to be thankful for or how strong they are. That's not emapthy- that's sympathy and no one wants to feel like you feel sorry for them.
A Vancouver based business that I have had the pleasure of getting to know has done an incredible job at displaying empathy as a corporate initiative and team collaboration. Kleiner Services is a Vancouver based moving company that uses the principles of empathy to engage clients. As a moving and junk removal company Kleiner meets people in the stressed-out moments of their process of change. In talking with Konstantin Kleiner, I have heard him talk about knowing how hard it is to navigate a move and for that reason his team will supply pizza for the family on moving day, reassemble furniture when they deliver it and talk to you about the experience you are having. I have found Konstantin to care deeply that his team shows the same level of engagement as he does with clients. For this reason, empathy has become the way he hires, trains and talks to his employees.
As a strategy, empathy can add gains to your quarterly performance but also has profound impact on your "soft outcomes" that provide dividends in your team like job satisfaction, employee retention and increased overall performance. When done correctly- empathy is just as much about you and your team as it is pleasing your client and market-share.
- Where is your heart when it comes to giving? Does the idea freak you out? Inspire you? What kinds of emotions do you have when you think about giving more than just the service you sell?
- What's your experience with the interface of being valued and empathy? Have you perhaps given too much at some points? Do you get questioned about your rates and services in such a way that makes you resistant to empathy?
- What steps would you have to take to build the belief about empathy on your team? Is it believable based on who you are as a person? If not- what do you need to change within yourself to make this a possible outcome across your business?
- Have you confused sympathy and empathy? Can you simply listen and affirm the person/client that you understand but that you aren't expecting them to "suck it up" or that you're going to rescue them from the situation?