Ricky Robinson

Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO)

In the Shoes of Another: Leading with Empathy

Shoes Of Another - colorful shoes printed empathy

In the Shoes of Another: Leading with Empathy

How can empathy promote more effective leadership and management in the workplace?

That “shoes” metaphor: yes, it’s a cliché.

So much so that American humourist Jack Handey deadpanned that

“Before criticising someone, walk a mile in their shoes; that way, when you criticise them, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes.”

Pause on the laughter: Walking in the shoes of another” carries deep meaning around many important issuesIt 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.

How passion and humility can drive employee performance

Motivational speaker Simon Sinek urges leaders to develop empathetic qualities so that they stay grounded.

“Leaders are often so concerned with their status in an organisation that they forget their real job,” Simon Sinek believes.

The former Chief Operations Officer (COO) of one of South Africa’s largest restaurant franchises believes that the simplest yet smartest thing he did soon after his appointment, was to spend a fortnight working as a griller, chippie, and waiter. Over the years he did this regularly across the chain’s countrywide footprint; he became the opening night griller whenever a new restaurant was launched, thriving in the state of semi-chaos – and learning, always, about what it was like to be a frontline server.
Shoes Of Another abstract image of chiefs
“You understand everything about your business when you see the coalface,” he confirms. “Most important, it gave me an understanding of the work and life circumstances of our lower-level staff. I realised that improving their lives even in small ways would help them to enjoy their jobs more, and to perform better. I walked in their shoes for fractional periods of time, but I’m convinced it changed the company for the better – and it made my life richer.” From COO to griller: what better way to be reminded of what’s important, to participate in empathetic experiences, than to swap roles?

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.

Shoes Of Another - The View finder
As in art, so too in life: Dutton refers to the need to optimise the “perceptual range” in addressing problems. This “right range” also contextualises that empathy isn’t necessarily about being nice.  Rather, empathy is a neutral data gathering tool, psychoanalyst Gourguechon confirms: better understanding others can be used to our advantage. Organisations are human environments and when we gain human insights, we’re better equipped to improve decision-making.

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

Is it possible, then, to develop empathy?

“As an innate human trait, we all have the capacity for empathy.”

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.”

Shoes Of Another - Practicing Empathy

“We all walk in shoes that are too small for us,” observed Carl Jung.

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.

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