Are empathic people more likely to collaborate? Or are collaborators more likely to empathize?
Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care, and I tossed around these and other questions during an engaging discussion this afternoon. “Collaboration allows for empathy and creativity to occur” is Dev’s view. We can argue this chicken-or-egg question either way, but the point is that empathy and collaboration are fellow travelers. While I argue in The Culture of Collaboration book that collaborating creates value, Dev argues that empathy makes money for companies.
Almost everything in business has become data-driven. The thinking is...if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter. Even traditionally less data driven disciplines such as public relations have become more numbers-oriented. Data certainly provides valuable insight, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, the road is littered with businesses that have used numbers—real or manufactured—to hide destructive practices. Bernie Madoff, who’s not exactly a poster boy for empathy, comes to mind.
I’ve been noticing recently some cracks developing in this data-obsessed foundation on which we build and grow businesses. Clearly, Dev’s antenna is up, and he’s noticing something similar. Dev likens the shift to the change in painting (canvases, not houses) that occurred after the adoption of the camera. Expressionism replaced realism.
According to Dev, we’re moving into the “abstract expressionist phase of management.” It’s no longer enough to be a great numbers person. We’re now expecting more of our leaders, and empathy and collaboration are among those qualities. Because a collaborative organization creates greater value, there’s an increasing role for collaborative leaders. And the same is true for empathy.
Understanding the feelings of others is good behavior, but empathy particularly pays off when companies—that is the people who work for companies-- understand what their customers are feeling. And in Wired to Care, Dev deftly weaves into his narrative numerous examples—ranging from Harley-Davidson to Nike—of companies that have achieved impressive results through empathy.
Dev asked me about the relationship between empathy and collaboration, and I’ve been thinking more about it since we talked. The strongest link is that both qualities involve focusing less on self and more on others. The opposite of collaborative behavior is internally-competitive, command-and-control behavior. This is a form of self absorption. Another form of self absorption is lack of understanding how others feel.
While reading Dev’s book, I wondered whether its author is empathetic. So I asked him. “I’m not a very empathic person,” Dev insisted. That struggle with empathy, though drives Dev’s interest in the topic. He points to the reputation of Apple CEO Steve Jobs as technologically-challenged. Jobs and Apple are ideally suited to sort out usability, Dev argues, because of this struggle. It’s not exactly analogous, but I take Dev’s point. And at the risk of treading into blurb-like territory, Wired to Care will make you think and act differently.