Research shows that our brains are wired for empathy, but we have weakened these connections over time. Feeling for others is sympathy and feeling with them is empathy. This starts with communicating your listening without judging, observing behaviours and understanding their emotions. Mirror neurons in our brain allow us to imitate others and experience their internal states. Research shows that experiencing empathy and compassion through the ‘mirror neuron’ system is equivalent to having compassion for yourself. Thus, ‘giving is receiving’ is a brain-based truth. According to Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, nurturing compassion helps you to not just feel what others are feeling but also feel moved to help, with their permission. Let us see how this case developed this highest order of empathy gradually over the course of the workshop.
This play intervention used Goleman’s ‘empathy triad’ or three stages of empathy development for the sales heads to deeply empathize with their IT clients. Initially, when the IT leaders individually built their own ducks with their own superpowers in them, the sales heads got to know how their clients felt (cognitive empathy).
The Super Ducks created by the joint teams (sales heads and IT leaders) were metaphorical representations of themselves as a team, also called known as ‘embodied metaphors’. They built a model that would address the complex challenges of their organizational stakeholders. Each 3D model was the output of the empathy process. It was a unique experience with a story about their one-of-a-kind Super Duck that was characterized by a brand identity, personality, values, mission, fears and challenges. This approach helped them see the problems and form solutions collaboratively. They had transferred tacit knowledge into a visual artefact that could be easily shared and discussed easily. This joint development of the Super Duck helped the sales heads develop a deeper understanding of their clients’ problems as they articulated the strengths, fears and challenges of their IT clients (emotional empathy).
With the help of the empathy map, one of the first deliverables in the design thinking process, the sales heads were able to understand not just the challenges and goals in depth but also the activities and feelings of the IT leaders. Working jointly with the clients helped in naturally and gradually positioning themselves as compassionate partners who wanted to help address their clients’ challenges. Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu point out in the book The Book of Joy that compassion means ‘suffering with’ the other person, and this ‘reminds us that we are not alone and lessens our own pain. This recognition of our interdependence begins to soften our rigid sense of self, the boundaries that separate us from others’. In the case with the IT leaders, this level of empathic concern (compassionate empathy) helped build stronger relationships and prioritize the product and service offerings to their clients that would later result in a better sales pipeline.
One of the broader messages that emerged from the playful interactions was that IT leaders were feeling disengaged from the rest of the business and felt like they were being treated like a support function. While on the one hand they were expected to provide the technology infrastructure to run business operations and improve employee experience, they were now also expected to support innovation projects. They were now actively seeking alignment and a relationship of ‘co- existence and partnership’ with the business stakeholders and their partners (solution providers) at large. They wanted to play a stronger role in business growth and saw themselves as strategic partners.
Let’s take the example of Jack Welch, one of the greatest business leaders in his era. I have had the opportunity of working in multiple general electric (GE) businesses during the early years of my management career in the U.S. but let me share a relatable anecdote from the CEO of iCrossing. In one of the business conferences in southern California where Welch was a featured speaker, the CEO of iCrossing decided to meet him and solicit his advice. For the sake of the business’s health, the CEO had made the agonizing decision to eliminate some positions, which reflected the global economic downturn in the late 2000s. Welch took the time to listen to his concerns patiently. He then reassured that he was making the right decision to protect iCrossing in the long run. He also explained that as a CEO, harder decisions will be coming his way and he will need to make some tough calls. Welch made him feel like he was the most important person in the world with this exclusive session, where his guidance on ‘always take the long view’ helped him tremendously. Along with this lesson, Welch taught him to always take time to listen with compassion. Another recent example is Brian Chesky, CEO and co-founder of Airbnb, who changed the way corporates dealt with the pandemic crisis with his letter to his employees.
Like the CEO of iCrossing, he had to fire a portion of his staff, but he made sure his employees did not tie their identity to this event and blame themselves. He made sure the departed shareholders stayed invested in the company. He also clearly articulated changes that people should expect to see, imparting calmness rather than chaos. Through his heartfelt, non-egotistical, non-masculine approach, he completely destroyed the stereotypical macho corporate role model in the current economic downturn. He channelled his compassion, humility and vulnerability for the greater good.
Excerpted from Play to Transform by Avinash Jhangiani, with permission from Penguin Random House.