How Empathy Stacks Up As A Critical Success Factor

1346079547With Capital Connection 2013 just around the corner, I’ve been searching for a way to report the action at MAVA‘s premier event from a perspective different from every other journalist. The big ‘aha’ moment came during the drive home today. I’ll try to assess founders’ critical success factor ratio on a single, frequently under-appreciated leadership quality: Empathy. In addition to other things, I’ll spend my time trying to intuit long-term prospects based on the level of empathy each founder appears to express during their interactions with other people—both on and off stage.

Please don’t label me a crackpot just yet. The science shows that people in leadership positions who demonstrate high degrees of empathy have a greater propensity to lead rather than manage. In the startup environment, leading with empathy qualifies as a critical success factor that influences the level of trust that can form across the team, which then affects quality and speed of decision-making, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and ultimately product quality and time to market.

The “Squishy” Side of Leadership

For those of you who think empathy is an emotion that’s too squishy to have much influence over business outcomes, think again. A few months ago we reported on Empathy in Business, an event sponsored by Arlington Economic Development’s Business Investment Group. Some of the area’s (and world’s) heaviest hitters gave personal insight about the role empathy plays in their business lives. This is what Ángel Cabrera, President of George Mason University, Carly Fiorina, CEO of Carly Fiorina Enterprises (and former CEO of HP), and Bill Drayton, CEO of Ashoka Innovators for the Public had to say on the subject:

“What if we didn’t try to be the best university in the world but the best university FOR the world?” — Ángel Cabrera

“We need to understand that the quality of our lives is directly related to the quality of other people’s lives.” — Carly Fiorina

“2/3 of people’s motivation is wanting to help. Why do we focus on the 1/3?” — Bill Drayton

For a quick recap, research shows people can experience and exhibit three kinds of empathy:

  1. Cognitive
  2. Emotional
  3. Compassionate

Cognitive empathy involves the ability to sense how other people feel and what they might be thinking. This ability plays an integral role in effective leadership because it helps you understand motivation from other people’s perspectives. Great leaders rely on cognitive empathy to build high performing organizations. But… they need more.

To respond appropriately to crises, the person at an organization’s helm also needs to exhibit emotional empathy. Our brains are wired to respond to the emotions of others on a very personal level. Connecting emotionally draws people in and creates trust.

Compassionate empathy causes people to reach out and help those around them—an element of problem solving if you will.

Despite the degree of empathy you personally feel and demonstrate, all healthy people experience it. (To read the entire article, please click here.)

Empathy’s Gender Bias

Management Today reports that there does appear to be a gender bias when it comes to empathy. Research conducted in the UK indicates that female managers demonstrated greater degrees of empathy, and therefore, developed deeper levels of trust with others in the organization—including the men who reported to them. I’m not convinced that the results are based solely on biology. Rather, I suspect that there may be general tendencies for women to more freely express empathy while concurrently cultural norms inhibit most men from showing empathy as deeply as they feel it.

If this is really the case, then can we teach empathy to both genders and make it acceptable to show in the workplace? After all, we’ve been taught to leave our personal lives (aka emotions) at the door. The Canadians seem to think so. They’ve begun an experiment to deliberately deprogram our empathy-hostile cultural bias. So far, the results look quite interesting.

Experiment: Roots of Empathy

Image of baby interacting with students in roots of empathy program

Roots of Empathy program

A public school in Toronto has launched a program to teach empathy to 8- and 9-year-olds. The program, called Roots of Empathy (ROE), brings a loving mother and baby into the classroom once a month. The kids observe the mother’s and baby’s behaviors and then discuss what they see. In addition, the school has developed a curriculum to round out the ROE program.

Teaching the dynamics of interpersonal relationships through observation will enable these kids to read between the lines when they interact with others throughout their lives. When you think about it, the teachers in Toronto are actually changing the way their students’ brains are wired. We all notice what’s going on in other people to one degree or another. Whether or not we pay attention is another thing. The emphasis and acceptance of empathy deliberately sets the critical building blocks for developing a heightened degree of emotional intelligence.

If you’re interested in the article, you can find it in a special edition of Time entitled The Science of You: The Factors that Shape Your Personality. The article has not made its way to an online version… yet.

What critical success factors will you look in the CEOs who present at Capital Connection 2013? Please comment below.

Originally published by Modern DC Business Magazine on May 29, 2013.

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