Archives for March 2016

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Empathy – the ability to identify with and care about others by seeing and understanding the world through their eyes.

Serving the customer is the sole reason a business exists. The success equation is pretty simple: No customers, no business. On the other hand, when organizations meet or exceed customer expectations, the business grows. Empathy, understanding the views and needs of others from their perspective, is therefore a critical skill for business (and also personal) growth and success.

In Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes the misery, hopelessness and despair of the late 1920s poorest. What is interesting is that Orwell does not write about poverty as a research observer. The account is based on his own personal experience as he chose to live among the poor and suffer the consequences of starvation and social ostracism. He was able to express the reality of poverty because he submersed himself into the experience of others and literally walked in their (tattered) shoes.

Empathy is the skill that allows us to take that walk and view the world through the eyes of others. It permits us to pause from our own biases to see situations through the lens of someone else’s experiences, emotions and concerns.

If you’re thinking empathy is a “soft” relational concept, think again. The ability to experience the world from the point of view of teammates, customers and society is fast becoming integral to twenty-first century business success. Certainly empathy drives intimacy and understanding within family relationships. Every loved one wants those closest to them to understand their world. But take that concept to the next level. A basic communication principle is to know your audience. If you want to inspire people to action with your message, then you have to submerse yourself in their mindset, motivation and passions. Ideas, services and products are purchased based upon what the customer wants—not what the spokesperson, provider or manufacturer thinks is important. The skill of empathy is foundational to identifying customers’ needs and desires.

Let’s look at some current examples. Companies like Zappos and Nordstrom command higher price points because they deliver exceptional customer experiences. Starbucks sells coffee at amazing profit margins precisely because each customer gets exactly what they want – including extra-hot and extra-shot. Newer products like GoPro, Motorola Moto X and Spotify have soared because they allow customers to create personalized movies, customized phones and tailored music to fit individualized tastes. Even hardcore science is moving in this direction. We’re thrilled that some of Blueprint LEADERSHIP’s very own customers are leading the change in determining personalized cancer treatments based on a patient’s unique genetic DNA sequencing.

It is inevitable. Customization and personalization of messages and services are moving at an accelerating pace and this promises to continue. To truly understand the customer’s perspective, leaders across all industries and spheres of society must develop and grow their empathetic muscle.

Not only will non-empathetic companies lose customer allegiance, but social media will continue to drive customers away with negative reviews that spread virally in today’s world. Negative social media feedback marginalizes companies like Bank of America and American Airlines, known for some of the worst customer experiences in the marketplace. To prevent such experiences, customer empathy must be driven from the C-Suite down throughout an organization’s culture. While some may debate whether the “customer is always right,” the customer certainly has abundant opportunities to share their view quickly across the globe. Empathy helps organizations stay in touch with the needs, views and experiences of customers.

Empathy is also important to justice and social revolution. For example, in order to foster peace and implement change, we must empathize with the perspectives of those on opposing sides of politics and upcoming generations, especially when it comes to issues regarding environmental and economic stability, immigration, and educational opportunity. If we only see through our own eyes and experiences, we will miss the opportunity to see the world in a broader sense, as George Orwell did.

In applying empathetic skills to every aspect of our life (relationships, work, and society), we promote other-centeredness and demote narrow-mindedness, a shift our world desperately needs. By evaluating our companies in the context of how we are impacting our teammates, customers, and the world at large, we position ourselves to make a lasting impact, not just in our own companies or homes, but across state and national borders.

The opportunity to see the world through another’s eyes should not be viewed as a soft concept, but rather as one of the most valuable and effective skills in serving the world. The 21st Century competitive advantage will go to organizational teams that work together interdependently to generate positive and caring experiences for the customer and society at large. By choosing to live in the shoes of others, we break ground in building a better world for our families and our customers in generations to come.

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“It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

A growing organization that was thought to be revolutionary in its field of research had a thorn in its side. The VP of R&D and the VP of operations could not even look one another in the eye. Each intentionally avoided the other and used third parties to communicate to avoid risking an encounter. This nagging thorn plagued the organization for weeks, until it became apparent that the conflict required immediate resolution.

With the guidance of an internal mediator, the two individuals entered the same room for the first time in over a month, under strict conditions: commit to pursuing what is right, commit to confidentiality, acknowledge the good in their relationship, refrain from condemnation or blame, use “I” rather than “you” in discussion, avoid words like “always” and “never,” and confirm understanding before responding, by restating the other person’s position.

Over the course of several meetings which followed these guidelines, the two individuals were able to gradually extract the thorn and commit to immediate action steps that breathed new life into the relationship. Both became aware of the negative implications of their behavior on the organization and committed themselves to move forward in a way that most effectively served each other as well as the company. Each of them owned partial truth in the conflict. By extending themselves to understand the other’s truth, they were able to acknowledge their own missteps and deepen their insight into the other’s perspective. At the end of the resolution process, all emerged victorious—the VP of R&D, the VP of operations, and the organization.

Raise your hand if you enjoy handling conflict. Make this request at your next team meeting and see how many hands are raised—very few, if any, and it won’t be because they didn’t hear you! You’ll probably observe anxious facial expressions, fidgeting, or people looking for an escape route from the room. For most of us, dealing with conflict does not come easily, and our first inclination is to avoid it at all costs.

But conflict is a powerful reality that influences the safety, the success, and the promise of communities across the globe. Conflict in the areas of politics, race, and religion (among others) has been the root cause of inestimable suffering in the world for decades, with no alleviation in sight. While we in the USA are fortunate enough not to be in the midst of life-threatening conflict on a daily basis, it’s critical that each of us understands the implications of the methods by which we manage conflict. And if we truly want to change the world, we must commit ourselves to lead future generations to surpass our own ability to cultivate harmony among opposing viewpoints.

Let’s begin with the person we influence the most—ourselves. In every situation of conflict, we bring our own biases to the table. Relationship dynamics, current life circumstances, past experiences, stress, ego, goals, etc., all shape our beliefs and impact our ability to achieve objective views. Before engaging in conflict, first seek to develop your self-awareness. What biases may you be carrying that could distort your objectivity? Take time to identify what you’re carrying and why you’re carrying it. Then choose whether or not you’re going to let what you’re carrying obstruct your ability to resolve the conflict at hand.

Once you’ve identified and sorted your bias, take off your shoes and put on someone else’s—preferably someone who holds a contrasting viewpoint from yours on the issue at hand. Consider what bias they may be carrying. Why do they feel so strongly about their perspective? What is their goal? How are their beliefs being threatened by the opposition? Now take a walk in their shoes. How might your objective affect them in the short term and the long term? What is the underlying why of the conflict? What would a “win” look like for them?

Dig beneath the surface, especially when it feels uncomfortable—that’s typically what walking in someone else’s shoes requires. The more you explore, the more informed you’ll be about the full spectrum of the conflict.

Keep in mind that a discussion regarding the conflict between the parties involved hasn’t yet taken place. Determining the most appropriate time and manner for a discussion will heavily influence your ability to achieve a resolution. Allow for adequate time to process the circumstances before addressing the issue—this allows emotions to simmer down and the pre-work we just discussed to take place. Keep wearing the other person’s shoes, because this is your most valuable asset in achieving an all-around win. In preparing to discuss the conflict, remember that your tone of voice, body language, and genuine regard for every person involved contribute greatly to the resolution process. More often than not, the manner in which we communicate our message creates more conflict than the difference of opinions we hold. Ask yourself: How would I receive the message that is being communicated?

Effective conflict resolution doesn’t mean that everyone will agree with the outcome. It does mean that each individual feels respected, heard, and understood. Striving to attain the greatest good for every person involved requires a genuine effort to value every perspective and to work alongside one another to envision an outcome that surpasses what either party initially brought forth. Choosing to enter into a dialogue, as opposed to a debate, sets the tone immediately for what will unfold. Dialogue means you’re willing to listen more than you speak, while minimizing the “stuff” you’re carrying into the conversation, in order to maximize the chances for an optimal resolution.

Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to resolve one of the greatest conflicts in U.S. history, racial inequality. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, King describes his resolution mentality, by which he sought to defeat injustice and conflict rather than people, resulting in reconciliation and progress rather than enemies and gridlock. He encouraged individuals to identify what is positive in people’s actions instead of looking for ways to humiliate or defeat them. This crucial difference fostered the cultivation of teamwork rather than division. King experienced firsthand how challenging and unsettling conflict can be, but he also foresaw the extraordinary potential for human growth, and he clung to this hope. Like King, the strongest organizations acknowledge the transformative power of conflict resolution to equip leaders for the unforeseen future, believing that there is significant value in the challenges we encounter. They hold fast to that ancient proverb, “You reap what you sow.”

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“Some of the greatest advances happen when people are bold enough to speak their truth and listen to others speak theirs.”  – Ken Blanchard

“Disruptive, controversial, futuristic, and unique,”[i] are the words writer Ken Carlton uses to characterize the extraordinary minds that gathered in November 2014 at the World’s Greatest Problem Solver’s Conference. The event united an eclectic group of individuals with a common mission: “to advance a cause that was not about themselves.”

Carlton summarizes the thought-stream of the event: “Preventing terrorism by enlightening the mothers of extremists. Plopping sensors down every water well in America to understand drought. Confronting violent crime like an epidemic (think Ebola) to apply science to reducing inner-city murder rates. Treating crop data like a renewable resource to empower farmers. Harnessing wind to create untold power and create new jobs. Placing the safety of children in the hands of the community through the use of technology to keep our kids safe.”[ii] All are bold-faced problems in dire need of lasting solutions that were engaged by the world’s greatest minds to initiate progress toward alleviating such global scourges.

Another initiative for changing the world is called Solve: “This MIT-based program asks extraordinary people to work together to find solutions to the extraordinarily hard problems facing our global community.”[iii] With a sense of urgency, the group focuses on specific themes to tackle serious problems, including inaccessibility to education, substandard health care, lack of water and energy, and limited meaningful opportunities for the majority of the planet’s population. The program’s website explains exactly what the group does to carry out its purposes: “Solve convenes technologists, philanthropists, business leaders, policy makers, and change agents to examine and address the problems where technology, business innovation, and smart policy can be leveraged to bring about real and lasting change.”[iv] MIT President, Rafael Reif, proclaims, “We will do more than talk about the greatest problems facing our world. We will set the course to solve them.[v]

A third approach to arriving at answers is outlined by Richard Branson, founder and CEO of Virgin: “A great problem-solver is usually open to new ideas, innately curious and good at working with others.”[vi] Having started his ambitious venture with minimal experience in building a company, Branson developed phenomenal listening skills, which he insists are absolutely essential for effective problem-solving. In fact, he attributes much of the company’s initial progress to that factor: “One of the reasons my friends and I were successful early on was because we always asked a lot of questions. I was willing to listen to anyone who could help, and over the years many people volunteered their advice.”[vii]

In each of these examples, the doors of innovation were opened wide by building channels of communication that led to collaboration in solving problems bigger than any one person or organization is able to handle alone. There is across-the-board recognition that the greatest promise in tackling serious problems lies in diversified collaboration and shared responsibility. In order to implement the most effective solutions, leaders must continually challenge themselves to depend in greater degree on the strengths and contributions of others. They must believe in the power of teamwork over individualism. They must realize that the world’s gravest problems will not be solved in siloes.

There is a wide variety of tools and thought-exercises available to help ignite the collaborative problem-solving process. But before gathering in the boardroom or putting pen to paper, we must consciously choose to be a part of the solution. It begins with cultivating a trust in and a respect for every person involved, regardless of individual differences. Because when it comes to problem-solving, diversifying the team always multiplies the potential for breakthrough solutions.

  • What expertise do you bring to problem solving within your organization?
  • In what areas do you seek advice or support?
  • What assumptions or personal biases should you leave at the door?
  • How do you leverage individuals’ strengths to approach problem solving collaboratively?

Taking ownership of our potential to influence problem solving is crucial. By heightening our own self-awareness and inviting others to do the same, we create bridges instead of walls. Diverse perspectives and ideas expand the repertoire of possibilities that enable impactful solutions. It brings us to the starting line and prepares us to engage the most difficult problems by employing the full spectrum of insights from all kinds of minds.

[i] http://kencarlton.net/ramenblog/2014/11/12/ps9knec27l4o3kw3meil8nnvd3jzly

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] http://solve.mit.edu/

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] http://www.thestar.com.my/metro/smebiz/columns/2015/07/13/the-best-advice-ask-for-advice/

[vii] Ibid.

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