As humans, we are naturally empathic. In fact, empathy has been a vital component of human existence throughout the entire span of our species. As we enter the fourth industrial revolution, we explore the economic importance of our natural ability to empathise, it’s history and how to bring that to everyday use in the business world where innovation holds the key to continued success.
We can equate empathy with our human ability to recognise what others are thinking, to put ourselves metaphorically in their shoes and to see where their thoughts might lead them. It’s our Neolithic ability to share attention and intention as a species in the hunt or the gathering. In those times, we needed to trust the intentions and knowledge of others and know that we share the same focus of our actions. It matters as much now in our modern working environments as it did during our ancestors’ harvest. Empathy and compassion breed trust and support. They breed a sense of gratitude and a sense of and need for belonging. It can be used to understand other’s perspectives.
This has enormous implications for how we innovate, and for how we do business. At its core, design thinking is about empathy. To really understand the problem we are trying to solve, we must have an empathetic view of the people who are experiencing the problem.
Building a culture of empathy
Using technology and logic will only take you so far. Numbers and margins are all important and while it’s true that business decisions should be made using hard data, a business’ brand is incredibly personal these days. That’s because there’s no separation between brands, those people running the brands, and customers.
Imagine moving a business brand beyond the transactional. Rather than seeing your company and your customers as ‘us and them’, you start to see yourselves as part of the same tribe. You start to think like your customers and feel confident enough to rely on your intuition. You find yourself anticipating what real people are doing and what they’re looking for from you.
Empathy and team problem-solving
Empathy can be used to understand a colleague’s or partner’s behaviours. Where are they coming from? What do they mean? What are their intentions? Moreover, a critical issue in human society is overcoming our bias and working as a group effectively to challenge, support and test is crucial.
As a prime example, Microsoft has set a great way of understanding problems and issues and turning problems into real applications. Since Satya Nadella was appointed CEO at Microsoft, the introduction of the hackathon has grown from being an annual and popular fixture for innovation into a whole lot more. Ideas and creativity are supported by managers, even in areas that job roles don’t cover. It’s all about diversity, inclusivity and empathy. Without manager and peer support and the opportunity to really think outside the box, innovation would not have become a commonplace, everyday part of every colleague’s role, not just an annual event.
Perhaps these are lessons from which we can all learn:
- Aim to build no-limits creativity sessions into meetings or everyday activity, whenever there is a real issue.
- If you think you can’t, you can’t. If you think you can, you can. Learn from the example of the failed Apollo 13 mission. Getting back the astronauts alive and safe became the problem, not trying to land them on the Moon. Engineering excellence would not have provided a solution alone, but lateral thinking and deep dive brainstorming, with little time did. The challenge, building a new filter to prevent them from being poisoned, only used the material in the spacecraft itself
- Don’t limit creativity and innovation to specific functions or roles, build this into a supportive culture, where it is instilled as a positive experience to share a suggestion.
“The value that I really learned to appreciate deeply and which I talk about a great deal is empathy. I don’t think it is simply a “nice to have” but I believe it is at the centre of the agenda for innovation here at Microsoft.” Sathya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft