That “shoes” metaphor: yes, it’s a cliché.
So much so that American humourist Jack Handey deadpanned that …
Pause on the laughter: “Walking in the shoes of another” carries deep meaning around many important issues. It refers to empathy – the wellspring of perspectives about the feelings of others.
Empathy as a workplace unifier
Empathy is vital for good leadership and management in the workplace.
It’s one of five essential cognitive capacities and personality traits of leaders carrying significant responsibility, according to past President of the American Psychoanalytic Association and business writer, Prudence Gourguechon. (Critical thinking, self-awareness, self-discipline, and trust are others.)
Why? Well, how would you build a brilliant sales team without knowing how to inspire them? Could you truly understand your clients’ needs without connecting with them, or mentor the next generation of leaders without empathising with your employees?
Generally, acting with empathy towards all the organisation’s stakeholders is necessary to navigate these extraordinary times and safeguard the sustainability of the enterprise.
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A not-so-crazy concept: an approach to teaching empathy
Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen and the company’s Vice President for its products divisions, Ben Horowitz, had a dilemma early in the company’s history. Horowitz tells the story of his ‘Freaky Friday Management Technique’, developed after he watched the original version of the movie of the same name starring Jodie Foster. The film’s storyline is simple: a mother and teenage daughter cannot get along. Freakishly, though, when their bodies are swapped, they must learn to adapt – which they do, because they start to understand one other.
Horowitz applied this idea to solve a major organisational problem. The company had two vital – and high-performing – divisions, Customer Service and Sales Engineering. They were headed by excellent managers, too – except they constantly clashed and competed.
His brainwave was to get both managers to watch Freaky Friday – then he swapped their roles at Netscape. It worked! Both their individual and respective business unit performances took a further exponential leap. Horowitz says it was the best management training intervention he has ever implemented.
Powerful stuff! Proof, too, that the metaphor of stepping into another’s shoes can be hugely helpful in business circumstances.
The View finder principle as a key to empathy
Psychologist Kevin Dutton refers to the benefits that flow from the right view, much like the viewfinder mechanism in a camera.
Imagine admiring the exquisite realism of 17th century Renaissance painter Johannes Vermeer’s works and a creation of one of the great 19th century impressionists, Claude Monet, at an equidistant range. You would certainly appreciate the beauty of both, but step closer and you would marvel at Vermeer’s detail; step further back and you’d be awestruck at the subtlety and innovation of Monet.
Exercising empathy directly affects business results
Empathy is vital, because a leader’s inability to empathise can have major consequences – devastatingly so, should this lack of empathy filter into the corporate culture.
In 2017 United Airlines ground crew physically pulled from the plane and injured a passenger who was already seated and in possession of a boarding pass. The reason? A United Airlines employee needed a (free) seat.
The episode was bad enough, but United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz showed no remorse initially; his subsequent statements were defensive rather than empathetic towards the passenger.
His response was, according to Bloomberg, one of the worst-ever corporate PR disasters. The business cost is clear in the media headlines: “United Airlines Suffers Near $1bn Loss in Value”, “United Airlines CEO Apologises Once Again as Profits Fall 69%”, “United Shares Slide as PR Nightmare Catches Up With Investors”.
Practising empathy at work and in everyday life
It’s a difficult skill to master – but yes, it is possible to practise “walking in another’s shoes,” including in the workplace.
But there’s a caveat, especially for those of us who may believe we are naturally good at seeing others’ perspectives. Says the experienced actor Okieriete Onaodowan: “It’s easier to be empathetic when the subject raises no objection to your idea of self. But when you’re at an impasse, and you need to find a path that’s different to your own to understand someone else, it’s much harder for your heart to hear.”
In other words, we become too attached to those strategies that were seemingly helpful to us at an earlier stage of our lives. I’d offer that walking in the shoes of another might be a great way of getting our own shoes to better fit for the journey ahead.
So, especially in these current times, empathy is something we should keep practising. Because with empathy we become better people, who do better business.