In the various speaking engagements and articles I’ve written in the past few years, I make no secret of the fact I have held 53 jobs. I did not love many of my roles. When I started to dig into the research about employee happiness, I discovered I am not alone.
Gallup estimates that 53% of Americans feel similarly. An additional 13% are actively disengaged, meaning they report being miserable or as I say, “The employees stealing office supplies.”
When I reflected on my own experiences and others, I realized it all comes down to one skill: empathy. This realization was the inspiration for my latest book, “Mean People Suck” I share how empathy not only changed an entire marketing strategy but my career path. Most importantly, I share tips on how you can become more empathetic.
Are we born with empathy?
Human beings are born with innate capabilities, such as the ability to identify faces. Empathy, however, is not included in this group. While we are born with the capacity to be empathetic, it is something we learn to value throughout most of our childhood and into our adult lives.
Merriam-Webster defines empathy as, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
In other words, empathy is the ability to walk in another person’s shoes. As I have discovered, this ability pays off in dividends for your customers, your company, and especially you.
How empathy made millions
In 2007, SAP hired me as the first Vice President of Global Marketing and Content Strategy in North America. It wasn’t long until the Co-CEO at the time, Bill McDermott, realized that there was only product information on the website. The inspirational stories customers had provided were nowhere to be found online.
He tasked me with changing how we spoke to SAP’s digital audience. With little to no budget, I had to get creative. I looked at our current marketing efforts and realized that while millions of dollars had been spent on campaigns, they were not performing.
I shifted the focus of our strategy to create content that helped our customers. As a result of our efforts, millions of dollars were added to SAP’s revenue. The results made me pause and think about why my colleagues had been okay with the previous results. They were smart people and wanted to do well.
It was then that I realized I had similar frustrations in previous jobs. We often exhibit self-preservation behavior at work. It causes us to maintain the status quo even when we know it is not working. Whether it is a coworker, customer, or a family member, when we are able to focus on the needs and desires of another, our lives flourish.
As I mentioned earlier, empathy is not an innate skill and something we can all improve. Here are a few steps you can take to improve your empathetic abilities:
Make sure other people are the hero of your story
Whether or not you have seen the movie Frozen, my guess is you have heard someone singing the film’s famous song, “Let it go.” When Pixar first produced the blockbuster success, the employees were not impressed.
Normally at the end of the first screening, employees would hug and high-five each other. However, after the first viewing of Frozen, the theater was quiet. The tissues that were typically used during initial screenings were still in their box. It was a flop.
Multiple employees, including the head writer and several songwriters, went to the producers and asked if they could take over. They wanted to use their backgrounds to tell the story about women who don’t need a man to save them and write a relatable story for audiences.
According to Pixar’s co-founder and former president, Ed Catmull, explains how the hero of the story was his team. In short, the film’s success was because the leadership allowed their teams to take ownership and make the audience the true hero of the story.
The best way to make another person the hero of the story? Learn to listen. Be open to constructive criticism and feedback. When talking to others, listen to their needs and desires.
Be curious, be kind
In our fast-paced culture, asking someone how they are can seem like more of a pleasantry than a genuine question. However, asking questions is how we learn as children, students, and new employees. Brilliant thinkers know that the way to gain deeper insights is never to stop asking questions.
Even Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt said, “We run this company on questions, not answers.” He too knows that if you keep asking questions, you will find better answers.
As a manager and CEO, I use this strategy with my employees. Rather than the archaic pre-scheduled 1:1 meetings, I ask them three questions about once a week:
- How are you doing?
- How am I doing?
- How can I help?
This conversation gives my employees a chance to share any concerns or suggestions. Asking these questions also gives me a chance to find ways to improve their experience by listening to their needs. A genuine question that indicates we care about another person can take us farther than we imagined, personally, and professionally.
Put yourself in someone else’s shoes
Between speaking engagements and client meetings, I spend a lot of time in airports. Delays due to bad weather, lost luggage, and other inconveniences that force me to spend more time away from my family are not uncommon. However, I tend not to complain.
If you look at the stories that go viral about someone’s bad experience with an airline, you will notice it is usually about a single interaction with one employee who is having a bad day. Think about the last time you had a bad day and said something you shouldn’t have to your spouse or friend. Once you calmed down, I bet you spent time apologizing to that person and feeling crummy about your actions, right?
Next time you have a less than pleasant experience, try taking a more empathetic approach. Put your self in that person’s shoes and remember they may just be having a bad day. You’ll feel better, and so will they.
Focus on the positive
Once we reach a certain age, it is likely that we have had one or two jobs we didn’t like. I certainly have had roles I did not like, especially the job I do not enjoy discussing. However, I have realized that putting a positive spin on the situation is essential.
Research conducted by the Mayo Clinic backs up my insistence on finding the positive in any situation. Those with a positive mindset tend to have an increased lifespan, a stronger immunity, and can better cope with stress.
Think about a job you hated, or maybe the one you’re in right now. I bet if you think about it for a few minutes, you can identify several good moments. Perhaps it’s laughing with your coworkers or the location of your office. Whatever it is, remembering what is good about a situation will change your mindset.
Pour your fans a beer
The Foo Fighters is one of my favorite bands. I know every song they’ve written, and I’m a fan of the band’s lead singer, Dave Grohl. After delivering a keynote speech where I discussed my love for their music, I checked Twitter to see if anyone had mentioned my speech. I was surprised to find someone had shared this photo of Grohl pouring a fan a beer during a concert.
We can learn an important lesson from Grohl’s act of kindness with his fans. The truth is we may not love what we do. Most of us are in jobs because we have a specific skill set that the market needs. Whether or not our profession is our passion, we can find meaning in our career when we work in the service of others.
In Grohl’s case, he goes the extra step even though he’s performing for thousands of fans. He pours fans a beer when they’re cups run low. He focuses on what they want and need. When we perform acts of service, we are generally happier and more fulfilled. Isn’t that what we all want?
So what do you think? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy. Get in touch with me today!