People@Work

Is empathy the essential leadership ingredient?

Abhijit Bhaduri | Updated on June 20, 2018 Published on June 20, 2018

In the technology-charged world of work, the human touch is the next frontier

I was consulting with the leadership team of a startup that was struggling to drive adoption of its app. The leaders said they offered an amazing range of choices for the consumer but were puzzled by the lukewarm pace of adoption. The leadership team had geeks who prided themselves on evidence-based decision-making.

When I spoke to the sales team, they mentioned that the consumers found navigation complex, unintuitive and slow to load. The technical team stated that their data showed a 26 per cent improvement in loading time. Consumers refused to agree. So it was back to the drawing board. Tempers were running high. Someone joked, “Maybe we should sell to people who are smart (like us) …”

Empathise with the user

This scene has been repeated in many meeting rooms. Fighting a battle with the consumer never helps because the consumer always wins. A better strategy is to empathise with the consumer. Human-centred design puts the human being at the centre. A group of designers wanted to know why their mobile phone was not popular among young women. While observing their consumers in their homes they discovered the reason why. Young mothers use their mobile phones to pacify their children. But they also worry about about children accidentally deleting information. Could the phone designers find a way to secure the phone such that their children could safely play with it without deleting contacts or changing settings?

Empathy can be taught

Doctors have traditionally believed that curing the patient meant sharpening their knowledge of science. But research shows that “clinical empathy” has an equally strong role to play. “Oncotalk” is a course to teach doctors this often overlooked skill. Unlike sympathy, which is defined as feeling sorry for another person, clinical empathy is the ability to stand in a patient’s shoes and to convey an understanding of the patient’s situation as well as the desire to help. While empathy courses are rarely required in medical training, interest in them is growing.

Dr M Hojat, who developed the Jefferson Scale of Empathy, a tool used by researchers to measure it, believes that empathy is a cognitive skill and can be taught. Studies have linked empathy to greater patient satisfaction, better outcomes, decreased physician burnout and a lower risk of malpractice suits and errors.

Programmes at Jefferson Medical College and at Columbia University School of Medicine are teaching empathy. Columbia has pioneered a course in narrative medicine, which emphasises the importance of understanding patients’ life stories to provide compassionate care.

Empathy training appears to combat physician burnout. So it is a win-win.

A leadership essential

Satya Nadella has spoken often about the importance of empathy. His interest in accessibility helped Microsoft dedicate resources to enhance accessibility of their products. For those with reading and writing difficulties, such as dyslexia, there is the Microsoft Learning Tools set built into Office 365 and other applications, touted to help improve comprehension. The user can have content read aloud, adjust the settings to break words into syllables, adjust text size and background colour, and other features.

Stanford is teaching a class on compassion at its famed Graduate School of Business. That may be timely. The course is based on the theory that a compassionate attitude can significantly reduce the distress people feel in difficult situations, as well as make you a better leader. Self-awareness and the ability to care for self and others is going to be the differentiating factor as the workplace gets more automated. Algorithm-based decision-making is accurate but it is the biases and failings of humans that engage people.

Efficient or humanitarian?

Leaders often have to take decisions where the data is fuzzy. Deciding to reward a team member who took a stretch target and failed versus someone who gamed the system and overachieved results needs judgement. What the machines can do better is to tally the numbers and dish out rewards to the one who hit their target. The human may need to think harder.

At the last Developer conference, Google demonstrated how the AI-based machine could successfully mimic the human voice to make an appointment at a salon. Interestingly, what makes the voice “human” is the intonation, upward inflection and the adding of “umm” or a pause. Without that “flaw” we would know that it the caller was a machine.

The reskilling challenge

A few weeks ago, the McKinsey Global Institute released a report on skill shift, automation and the future of the workforce. They spoke about the major reskilling challenge that lies ahead. The strongest growth in demand will be for technological skills. The next big surge will be for social and emotional skills such as leadership and managing others. We have been teaching leaders too often to manage “clinically” because the business world had no place for emotions. Yet it is emotions that will drive the next phase of growth.

As machines drive efficiency everywhere, we will look for leaders to manage the grey zones complete with our failings and flaws. That is what makes us human.

Abhijit Bhaduri is a talent management advisor to several organisations and coach to CEOs. He is the author of The Digital Tsunami

Published on June 20, 2018
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