Empathy starts with trying on a new context for size

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Written by Achieve Breakthrough

Empathy starts with trying on a new context for size

For leaders, empathy is now listed as one of the most important skills in their arsenal. The capacity to empathise with others is crucial to developing positive relationships and cultures with teams, but it can also drive business results. From reduced employee turnover to increased engagement and innovation, the impact of empathetic leaders is extensive.

While empathy comes naturally to some, that’s not the case for everyone – especially when neurodiversity enters the equation. But it’s such a valuable trait to our organisations that it would be remiss for us to not actively pursue empathetic thinking – and that starts by trying on a new context.


Successful teams are built on empathy, not IQ

 In a 2015 TED Talk, business leader Margaret Heffernan spoke about the key role diversity and empathy plays in the success of teams, and the dangers of organisations relying on “super chickens”.

 She was referring to the work of Purdue evolutionary biologist William Muir. Muir studied the egg-laying productivity of one normal flock of chickens, and one bred from the chickens that were individually most productive. After six generations Muir found that the average flock were all healthy and laying an increasing number of eggs, while in the “super flock” all but three chickens had been pecked to death.

 There’s very little risk of that exact fate repeating with teams of people. But the point Heffernan makes is that building a successful team is not a case of gathering together individual superstars. More often than not they prove to be less than the sum of their parts, as lone voices dominate or competition stands in the way of collaboration.

Instead, as evidenced by research at MIT, the standout feature of high-performing teams is their empathy, measured by a high level of social sensitivity to one another and equal turn-taking in discussions. These teams may not have had the highest combined IQs, but their empathy allowed them to build on each other’s expertise and create a cohesive flow of ideas.


When we look beyond our contexts, we connect

We carry our contexts with us into every situation. Our upbringing, the people we surround ourselves with, our life experiences: these frames of reference are a natural part of how we learn to navigate the world. But when leaders aren’t prepared to challenge their contexts, they end up being boxed in by blind spots outside of their own experience.

That’s what makes diverse teams so powerful. When there are more perspectives drawn from across a variety of contexts, there are fewer blind spots for the team as a whole.

But diversity alone doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Empathy is the mortar that binds diverse individuals together into a true team. And to truly benefit from a range of perspectives, the key is in learning to not just listen, but to actively stand in their contexts.


Empathy has the power to change minds

In his book Think Again, author and psychology professor Adam Grant makes the case that empathy has the power to change even the most deep-seated and seemingly immovable beliefs.

In one of his examples Grant highlights Daryl Davis, an African-American musician who became known for engaging with members of the Ku Klux Klan and convincing many of them to denounce their white supremacist beliefs.

Davis didn’t succeed by explaining to them why their racism was wrong. Instead he showed the Klansmen that their beliefs were often an accident of birth. He asked them to reflect on how differently they would think had they been born into a different family or community. This forced the Klansmen to step into the context of another and empathise with a worldview entirely alien to their own, and through that they were able to change.

Likewise, hostage negotiator Chris Voss speaks of employing “tactical empathy” in his work. When talking down committed terrorists and armed kidnappers, Voss would label their emotions and view the situation from their perspective.

Standing in the context of a dangerous criminal would sound unthinkable for most of us, but by bridging that gap of understanding Voss was able to defuse incredibly heightened situations.


For leaders, empathy is a long-term goal

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes isn’t exactly a revolutionary idea. It’s advice we’ve all heard before to help us understand other perspectives on a social level, and for organisations it can be a vital part of getting to know your audience.

But all too often it can end up becoming transactional. Businesses try to stand in the shoes of their customers to better sell their products or craft more resonant messages. Even in the case of Voss and his tactical empathy, the goal is still to ultimately sell a resolution to a hostage situation.

But leaders in organisations aren’t trying to elicit a one-time action from their teams. They’re looking to inspire a culture of collaboration and maintain positive relationships in the long term. For senior leaders in particular that often means standing in multiple competing contexts at once.

At Achieve Breakthrough, we worked with an energy company that was putting together a new senior leadership team from the heads of the firm’s individual departments. One of the difficulties for the team at first was that each member was approaching decisions from the perspective of their own departments, but weren’t able to find new ways forward for the company as a whole.

What they needed was to stand in the context of each other. Not to encourage buy-in on their own ideas but to authentically learn from everyone’s perspective on best practice throughout the business. Once they began to empathise with each other in this way, they were able to leave their own long-held beliefs at the door and embrace innovative ideas for the organisation. 

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Published 09/02/2023

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