The Conspiracy of Empathy: Why Some Organizations Thrive When Others Don't

07/29/2014 05:31 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2014

It is inevitable that every company, industry and even government will meet a crisis at some stage in their life cycle. For those organizations that succeed, is there a common thread for thriving beyond the crisis? Why do some organizations entrench themselves until there is no way out? What is the difference?

There is one persistent theme in organizations that have consistently transformed their business model and transcended the challenges of a new economy. When looking at companies that have thrived and found new ways to innovate and drive forward through a crisis, what made the difference was empathy.

As our economy shifts beyond the great recession, it is time to look in the mirror and face the truth. Whether we fail or succeed, it always comes back to who we are and the values we safeguard and promote. It is a simple truth that we repeat the patterns and live the values that are most significant to us.

Conspiracy of empathy.

The word conspiracy may bring to mind a government cover up or big business corruption. The Latin root of the word though means to breathe together, while empathy denotes a deep understanding of one another.

A conspiracy of empathy means working in unison to foster understanding and to create a partnership between all parties involved, with the goal of adding value to the organization as well as each participant in the partnership. This approach creates a feedback loop from all sources -- management, employees and the customer, by engaging the individual in the process. It defines and drives the culture of the organization.

When faced with a crisis, successful companies find a new way to get things done. These organizations even partner with competitors to survive the changing landscape (see IBM and Apple). Creative collaboration allows organizations to leverage the value of their competitor's team, and in turn creates a strategic alliance while eliminating competition.

The process begins with a thoughtful intentional search for our guiding values.

Recently, our team, in midst of great change, created a Value Lens document that outlines who we were, what we held as our highest goals, and who we wished to become. Being in the business of higher education, we are searching for new ways to extend and redefine the classroom or where we can add value.

The most important part of the strategies we adopt is that they are true and aligned with our core mission. The value lens is a great filter to make sure that all we do gets us closer to becoming the best version of who we are to our employees, the business community, students (customers) and future students (customers). Every tactic or strategy is tested against this document. We even change course, but we never act against our core values. It is the compass that keeps us from drifting astray.

From a human resource perspective, the conspiracy of empathy approach ensures the best ideas are heard and not lost in the politics of turf or being right. One person, whether it is the CEO, owner or innovator, cannot be central to maximizing your market share if the organization is to be successful. When faced with a challenge, many organizations look to the leader, with everyone else following their command. Right or wrong, the message is clear that the one at the top has the only ideas that matter.

Organizations are simply a community brought together around a common purpose. That purpose might be profit, social good, or some combination of both. We all want to feel like what we do matters. Employees are motivated by very different circumstances depending upon what they do and at what level they are in the organization. It is this conspiracy of empathy that transforms disparate motivations into a common purpose. The entire team is encouraged to come up with ideas and add value to the partnership.

Companies who don't value their employees see profits fall because their employees don't value the company. Call it corporate karma, but if a company cares about its employees, the employees will care about the company. It is proven out time and again that an empathic culture is rewarded with loyalty.

Why empathy is an advantage.

There is much written on the value of empathy and how understanding your internal and external customers at all levels drives the bottom line. One of the best examples is the importance of deep insight into other user experiences around CRM's.

Vala Afshar, named by Forbes as one of the top thought leaders shaping CRM's, calls this the "experience economy" where organizations draw upon the collective experience of employees, suppliers and customers working together in an atmosphere of trust, respect and empathy. By adopting an attitude of social first, companies strive to improve their culture which is open and collaborative, in an ongoing journey toward continuous improvement.

In a recent US News article, Lisa Chau discussed with Afshar why empathy to the end-user makes a difference. The quality of our relationships translates into total lifetime value, with every interaction impacting whether a customer of the past will be a customer of the future. Afshar explains, "The experience economy also requires the humanization of business, meaning the adoption of a collaborative mindset where customers, partners and employees easily connect and share creative ideas and best practices."

Is there a better real world definition of empathy in practice? Empathy, or this deep understanding, is where innovation is created. Unless we have developed and built the deep connections with all involved, from the CEO to the customer service person to the end user, we might miss the one thing that makes all the difference.

Empathy allows for us to pay attention to the resistance points and adjust the sails as we engage in the market place. It creates sensitivity to new possibilities and innovative twists, positioning all to contribute, harnessing the human capital of companies and organizations.

A Framework for your conspiracy of empathy.

Challenges create disruption, but also the opportunity to conspire. The conspiracy is essential to becoming more of our values; adapting and innovating forward towards the new reality on the horizon. To breathe together means it becomes a part of our nature or culture. We simply act without having to think about it. It is who we are and it is our pattern.

So how do we create this culture of understanding without defensiveness? We create the best experience for everyone involved by harnessing the imagination of every person engaged in the process. Empathy in a leader has a far-reaching impact on a company. Empathy as a corporate value lived out, well that is a company that can change the world.