09/16/2013 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Dick Martin's Three Steps To Becoming A Better Business Leader

Joey Katona caught up with Dick Martin for a talk about his latest book and why empathy is essential to becoming a better business leader.

dick martin
Dick Martin

Earlier this month, I had the chance to interview Dick Martin, a telecommunications executive turned author whose fourth book for the American Management Association is OtherWise: The Wisdom You Need to Succeed in a Diverse and Divisive World (AMACOM, 2012). Through his work, Martin aims to steer readers - who inhabit a world of differences - toward common ground. Central to his vision is a global mastery of the skill of empathy.

What is the concise message of your new book?

OtherWise is about bridging differences, whatever their foundation. That's obviously important to business people, whose success depends on their understanding of customers and employees. But it's also important to us as citizens. Researchers at the University of Michigan have discovered a real decline in college students' ability to empathize with others, with the steepest drop in the last 10 years. I think it shows up in the so-called "culture wars," in declining civility, and in public officials' inability to solve the big problems facing the nation.

Please share a favorite story from your research. What made it such a great example for your book?

Most multinational companies have discovered the importance of understanding differences in markets, and as a result, they invest heavily in understanding the cultural values underlying those markets. One of the best examples is Proctor and Gamble, which spent three years studying the consumer market in China before introducing its first product there in 1988. Its initial plan was to manufacture Tide detergent, but through talking to people on the ground, P&G discovered that for most Chinese, getting their clothes whiter or brighter isn't a high priority. Instead, Chinese consumers were more concerned about dandruff and had high expectations of shampoo. So based on those insights, the company shifted production to Head & Shoulders.

The first toothpaste P&G introduced to the Chinese market had the flavor of jasmine tea because many local consumers consider tea a natural cure for bad breath, and jasmine is the most popular flavor. Today, P&G not only has the best-selling toothpaste and shampoo in China. It is the country's leading consumer products company, with revenue of more than $1 billion.

The aim of Ashoka's Empathy Initiative is to create a world in which every child masters the foundational skill of applied empathy. How feasible or worthwhile is this goal?

It's definitely a worthwhile and feasible goal. Census data shows that America is becoming a much more diverse country. Most demographers project that non-Hispanic white people will be a numerical minority by 2042. That's already the case in four states and in many of our major cities.

Furthermore, our social structures have been undergoing dramatic changes ever since the sexual revolution of the 1960s. More than four out of ten children are now born to unwed mothers. Women are the heads of household in the majority of American families. Political divisions are greater than at any time since Reconstruction following the Civil War. Not to be overly dramatic, but our nation's future really hinges on being able to bridge our many differences.

We have seen the consequences of being blinded by difference. Trayvon Martin would probably be alive today if his skin had been lighter. Studies show that people of color have a harder time getting jobs, and once employed, earning equal pay. People are still the victims of hate crimes simply because of their faith, sexual orientations, or ethnicity. And the gridlock in Washington is the product of an inability to see things from another's perspective.

When I speak about "being OtherWise," I try to leave people with some practical advice on how to become smarter about relating to others. I boil it down to three tips:

1. The first is to better understand oneself - including all the unconscious biases and prejudices we carry around. This is important because many of the so-called "differences" that divide us evaporate when we shine the light of reason on them. An ongoing study at Harvard University has demonstrated that how we relate to people who are "different" in some way -- either because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and so forth -- is deeply influenced by unconscious attitudes. Some of these attitudes are the product of evolutionary adaptations that make us suspicious of strangers; others are the product of unconscious associations built up over time; still others are what psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls "cognitive illusions," mental mechanisms like cognitive bias that operate below our level of awareness. But it seems indisputable that none of us are as free of bias as we think. Recognizing that is the first step in learning to bridge differences.

2. The second is to make a concerted effort to better understand people we consider in some way "different." We can all expand our worldview by reading about other cultures, but the best way to acquire real understanding is to get closer to the Other, by really getting to know them personally.This is important because when we actually encounter people who seem different, we begin to see all the ways in which they are like ourselves. When we see what we have in common, the differences seem less important and we can begin to develop an emotional connection with them; we can begin to feel what they are feeling. Developing and refining our natural sense of empathy is key in relating to others.

3. The third step is the easiest but requires the most discipline. Refuse to go along with otherizing people who are different. Object when someone tells a sexist or racist joke, not out of some sense of political correctness, but because it perpetuates a culture of "us" and "them." We should make questioning people's motives, intelligence, or patriotism as inappropriate as picking your nose in public.

Do all three and you're well on your way to becoming OtherWise. In addition to all the unconscious biases that divide us, we are born with a powerful instinct that can bridge differences. That instinct is empathy. Empathy is the gateway to becoming Otherwise. But empathy needs to be developed and refined. We are naturally empathetic towards people in our immediate circle - our family and friends. The trick is to learn how to expand that circle to include others who seem so "different" that, at least at first, we can't see beyond their differences.