Four Ways CEOs Can Lead With Empathy

In 1990, science journalist Daniel Goleman popularized the concept of “emotional intelligence.” Developed by psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey, “EQ” was shorthand for our ability to read other people’s signals and react appropriately to them. Mayer and Salovey argued that in the end, a leader’s emotional intelligence could be more essential than one’s intellect in producing the best results.

Ventura is building on this notion and I think he’s on to something. In his new book, Applied Empathy, he posits that empathy is more than just understanding, it’s how accurately your understanding reflects someone else’s reality and, just as important, what you do with that understanding. “The words business and empathy are rarely used together—in fact, for some of us they might even sound oxymoronic, but there are incredible benefits to taking on another’s perspective in the context of our professional lives,” he writes. “Developing and using another’s point of view is at the heart of applied empathy.”

EQ has been something of a buzz term among talent professionals since Mayer and Salovey first introduced it. I think empathy may be the lynchpin to advancing their concept. Millenials, who are today’s junior executives and tomorrow’s CEOs, bring with them different expectations, a different generational lens on what leadership should look like. The next generation of leadership cares about more than salary and benefits; its members view work as something that requires meaning and purpose. Those who ignore their viewpoint do so at their corporate peril. The talent wars will be won and lost on this battlefield.

So how do we engender more empathy into our own leadership? Here are four ways to apply empathy—and produce a more energized, satisfied, and forward-thinking C-Suite.

OWN YOUR BIAS. We all have a different way of seeing things. Some of us are naturally curious, always wanting to peel back the layers until we reach the heart of a matter. Others have mastered the ability to shut out all the interference, including their inner voice and become listeners. Honing the skill of “inner listening” means we all have to recognize and work to mitigate, the biases we inherently bring when we consider what others have to say.

SHIFT YOUR SEAT. Executives, managers, employees, vendors, customers and even your competitors can each share a very authentic yet different perspective about an experience. Recently a group of executives were brainstorming but were left wanting in their observations. They decided to put labels on different chairs of the various stakeholders in their outcome. Their next round of posting emanated from the point of view of the chair they were sitting in. Somehow, this silly exercise of moving seats brought valuable insight into what they were missing sitting in their leadership chairs.

TAKE A BREATH. Our bias can be similar to muscle memory. During a game of golf, when I get tired or rushed, my default is to revert back to my bad swing, the one that has dogged me since I first picked up a club. Similarly, when we dash from meeting to meeting without an intentional empathy break, it is easy to revert back to our default bias of processing from one point of view (namely, ours) while missing the valuable perspective of others. Empathy is hard work, but it pays big dividends.

BE “ICONIC.” Asking you to put one more thing on your schedule is a big ask. But there are some quick and easy ways to keep your empathy engaged as you go about your day. Consider creating a tangible empathy icon. An icon can be a special coin or a bracelet you wear. One executive I know changed his writing pen to an inexpensive child’s pen to remind him to be curious as he wrote his notes. Find what works best for you to support this behavioral shift. But find something.

Read more: How To Stop Viewing Workers Through A Generational Lens