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Q&A on the Book Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership

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Key Takeaways

  • Empathy is not about being nice, sympathetic or compassionate. These are the side effects of empathy’s perspective in taking power.
  • Applied Empathy is a series of tools and methodologies that help you practice empathy and bring it into your daily leadership style.
  • Empathy is a muscle you train. It takes practice and dedication.  
  • Organizations that bring empathy into their businesses improve their internal culture, relationships with consumers, and, ultimately, their bottom line.  
  • Practicing empathy requires the bravery to ask hard questions, take new actions, and change what must be changed in order to improve the business, and yourself.

The book Applied Empathy by Michael Ventura explores how understanding people and learning about their perspectives can help us to lead with empathy. Questions are more important than answers; as leaders we should look for ways to connect with our customers and employees, and listen more and talk less.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of Applied Empathy.

InfoQ interviewed Ventura about the role empathy plays in leadership, empathic archetypes, tensions that can slow down change, getting insight into the inner workings of the company and building connections with customers, and developing our empathy skills.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Michael Ventura: Applied Empathy was written because we knew it was needed. Everyone talks about empathy like it’s a rare gift that some people have and others don’t. That’s not the case. The concepts shared in this book will help people to adopt an empathic leadership mindset, which over time will allow for empathy to become a part of their leadership DNA.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Ventura: It’s for leaders, which is not to say exclusively "executives" or "CEOs." I believe everyone has the capacity to lead and the lessons included will help anyone- no matter the stage in their career- to think differently about their work and their actions.

InfoQ: How did you get interested in empathy in organizations?

Ventura: I’ve been working with organizations for nearly 20 years; helping them to build stronger brands, better products, and more resilient internal cultures. Throughout this work I’ve consistently seen empathy play a critical role in building powerful organizations and initiatives. Whether it was helping GE build a patient-first mindset for their healthcare practice, working alongside Nike’s innovation team to bring new products to consumers with authenticity and integrity, or helping one of the world’s largest financial institutions to embody their mission and share it with their thousands of global employees, empathy plays a critical role in deeply understanding the needs of your audience and facilitating a connection with them.

After years of doing this in a freeform manner, we thought it was time to develop a more formalized approach. We began by creating a 12-week curriculum and teaching it at Princeton University.  Via academia we were able to really field test this thinking and improve it with the help of our willing students. Following that, we were invited to bring our work to The United States Military Academy at West Point. It was fascinating to bring the same training to a different group of students and see how it worked just as effectively. From there, we knew we were on to something powerful and began to more formally roll out this thinking out to our clients.

InfoQ: What role does empathy play in leadership?

Ventura: Too many leaders think they have all the answers. They believe that they have already done the legwork and there is no need to leave the ivory tower to connect with the people they serve. This is not the case. The best leaders know that questions are often more important than answers. They know that every person they interact with has discrete needs that should be addressed. They take the time to ask the right questions and then are willing to do the work both within themselves and their companies to bring real, systemic change to life.

InfoQ: What are the seven empathic archetypes?

Ventura: One of the key methods we developed to help people connect with the idea of empathy was the creation of our seven empathic archetypes. We all love this sort of stuff. I’d bet most of you reading have taken at least one personality quiz (you know the ones that tell you what Star Wars character or snack food you are most like). From Buzzfeed to Meyers-Briggs to Strengthsfinder to the Enneagram, we all love a good diagnostic quiz aimed at helping us to better understand ourselves.

The archetypes function in this way — to help you better understand your empathic personality. Unlike many of these tests, however, our desire isn’t to compartmentalize you into a singular and specific "type." We don’t want to pigeonhole anyone and say, "This is who you are." Instead, we’ve introduced a series of archetypes that can be thought of as a kit of parts; something you can pull from depending on the context and the perspective required to meet any situation head-on. The ultimate aim is to help you become more deft and effective at perspective taking, regardless of the circumstance.
The archetypes each have a corresponding behavior. Together, they help us become a more well-rounded and thoughtful empath. They include:

The Sage
Be present: Inhabit the here and now.
The Inquirer
Question: Interrogate assumed truths.
The Convener
Host: Anticipate the needs of others.
The Alchemist
Experiment: Test and learn at all costs.
The Confidant
Listen: Develop the ability to observe and absorb.
The Seeker
Dare: Be confident and fearless.
The Cultivator
Commit: Nurture with purpose and intentionally grow.

Take a moment to consider each of them. I’m confident that there are already a couple that feel like second nature to you. These are probably the areas where you’re naturally inclined to use empathy to perspective take, without even realizing it. What about the ones that feel less comfortable to you? The ones that make you think, "I’ve never really put myself into that kind of behavioral state." These areas are just as important as the strengths you’ve uncovered. As we work on skilling-up in these weaker realms, we become better able to understand others and ourselves more deeply than before.

InfoQ: In your book, you mentioned four tensions that can slow down the change process in organizations. What are the tensions and how can we deal with them?

Ventura: There are a variety of "tensions" that emerge when we try to use empathy. These manifest within areas of an organization and its subsequent culture and can present a resistance against us as individuals trying to practice empathy. 

One of the first areas this can be detected in is in objective vs. subjective problem solving. You may be an objective, linear thinker working in an organization that values creativity and operates more subjectively. This doesn’t mean you can’t be successful within that organization, but in order to do so, you’re going to need to be more empathic and consider whether the solutions you provide account for the culture of the company at large and aren’t solely a reflection of your objective mindset.

Another area of tension manifests in top-down vs. bottom-up cultures. Having worked with lean, agile start-ups as well as the military and the government, I’ve seen that empathy can have a role in both types of cultures. The important point is to understand what sort of culture you are operating within and to what degree the culture (top-down or bottom-up) is supporting or hindering empathic thinking. Some bottom-up cultures operate via a decision-by-committee model. This can be massively empowering for employees, but can also lead to "analysis paralysis" and grind progress to a halt. When practicing empathy it’s important to assess the company culture and determine where perspective is needed most. Let that guide decision-making and communications up and down the organization. 

The third tension we discuss in the book is human-centered vs. ecosystemic design. Sometimes we need to focus solely on the final recipient of a solution – the user, the consumer, the customer, etc. We use human-centered design to truly optimize research for this person or group of people, and the insights gleaned help to inform the choices we make. Alternatively, sometimes decisions need to be more ecosystemic in nature, which requires a consideration of a variety of elements within a system. Examples may include, B2B partners, the supply chain, the media, shareholders, employees, competitors, etc. Taking perspective of each of these helps to paint a more accurate, holistic snapshot of the ecosystem, ultimately helping leaders make more well-informed choices. This can be time-consuming and frustrating for those who want to simply "trust their gut," but without doing the work of conducting the research, talking to partners, and more, you won’t have enough insight to make thoughtful and fully informed decisions. 

The last tension we’ll talk about here is the difference between passive and proactive leadership. Some organizations are inclined toward slow and steady growth. They are risk averse and don’t want to make any big bets – instead moving slowly and only making choices that have a safe, conservative outlook on growth. It’s critical for any leader in an organization to understand what sort of environment they are operating within. Perhaps you’re inclined to take big bets and gamble on innovations that could revolutionize your business, but you work within an organization that isn’t comfortable with that. Again, it doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but it’s important to identify and to learn how to operate within that system. By leveraging empathy, leaders can maintain an awareness for the comfort / discomfort these choices may cause and proactively assuage them accordingly. 

In truth, there are many more "tensions" that can be evaluated, but these four are some of the most common and worth considering when looking to understand how your own style of leadership aligns with that of your organization.

InfoQ: What elements can we examine to get insight into the inner workings of companies regarding empathy?

Ventura: There are lots of places where you can ultimately track the effectiveness of empathy, but many of them are unique to company and context. That said, retention of top talent, growth of existing talent, high performing teams, innovation, consumer brand affinity, and product usability / adherence, are some great places to examine when starting to build your empathy scorecard.

InfoQ: What can companies do to build empathic connections with consumers?

Ventura: Listen more and talk less. Go out and meet your consumers. Ask them good questions and then truly care about their answers. Don’t take the one-way glass, focus group approach to fact gathering, but rather sit down across from consumers and meet them on their turf. Understand what makes them tick and why your brand is or isn’t relevant to them. Empathy truly starts with connection.

InfoQ: What have you learned from the project retrospectives that you have done at Sub Rosa?

Ventura: The most important thing we learn in a retrospective is what not to do again. They present a great opportunity to learn how to improve processes, decision making, methodologies, resourcing, etc. As with any empathy-driven approach, it requires the curiosity to ask tough questions and the bravery to act on the answers you uncover.

InfoQ: How can we develop our skills for applying empathy?

Ventura: Practice. Empathy is something that must be constantly practiced if you want to make it a part of your leadership style. It’s not something you can only do once in a while if you really want it to work. With dedication it becomes part of your thought process in every decision and you begin to consider the "other" more and more often. Ultimately your leadership and decision-making becomes more well informed and considered.

About the Book Author

Michael Ventura is the CEO and founder of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design firm that has worked with some of the world's largest and most important brands, organizations and start-ups. Ventura has served as a board member and adviser to a variety of organizations, including Behance, the Burning Man Project, Cooper-Hewitt, and the U.N.'s Tribal Link Foundation. Applied Empathy, his first book, was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2018.


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