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U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) during a visit to his office on Capitol Hill.

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Empathy is getting tarnished these days, as some high-profile conservatives in the United States attack Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, and argue that empathy has no role in legal decisions.

But empathy has been lauded as a crucial ingredient of emotional intelligence, which helps executives be successful. And consultants Dev Patnaik and Peter Mortensen argue that businesses need to go further, creating "open-empathy organizations," in which every staff member is sensitive to how their company has an impact on people outside it.

"When they see who they're really working for, they know why their work matters and how to do it better," the consultants write in Rotman Magazine.

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Here's how you can make empathy a golden word at your company, according to the consultants:

Make it easy

Open-empathy organizations depend on having employees at all levels who are genuinely interested in other people. Use the same language as your customers, and dress as they do. Don't follow the example of Target stores, where executives at head office used to dress in the same casual, fashionable clothes they sold to their middle-class customers, but then adopted a dress code with a more professional style that had staff no longer - metaphorically or actually - walking in the shoes of their customers.

Use your own products and services

Video-rental service Netflix gives DVD players to new employees who don't own one, and a free subscription so they can share the customer experience and discern opportunities for improvement.

Make it everyday

Open-empathy organizations avoid the big kickoff events that corporate executives usually love to hold when they want to push a new idea, and instead focus on making empathy a part of the everyday culture. Leaders model empathetic behaviour for others. David Neeleman, when he was CEO of JetBlue Airways, flew around the United States in regular coach seats on his own airline, rather than an executive jet, and would join the flight crew in handing out snacks to customers and cleaning up after the flight, gaining first-hand exposure and sensitivity to customers and staff.

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Hire your customer

Realizing it didn't understand a generation of kids who grew up with PCs, cellphones and the Internet, Casio hired teenagers to help design its products.

Surround staff with customer information

Intel places posters with descriptions of "personas" - examples of typical types of customers - on the inside door of restroom stalls, where staff might get a chance to read them.

Make it experiential

The emotional centres of our brain aren't triggered by Excel spreadsheets and typical reports, so try to create ways for staff to actually interact with customers. Open-empathy organizations encourage staff at all levels to regularly meet the folks they serve. They break down the staff's isolation from the life of customers and bring the outside world in: Gardening tools company Smith & Hawken requires all employees to take a rotation working in its garden. Or take the inside outside: Procter & Gamble has a "living-in program," where managers and other employees live for a few days in the homes of lower-income customers.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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