Empathy, compassion, work: Part 1, with Michael Ventura
In this episode, Damon meets with Michael Ventura, CEO and founder of Sub Rosa, and author of Applied Empathy. Together they explore topics such as how a manager can assess empathy levels, the kind of questions an empathetic leader should ask, what empathetic decision-making looks like, and whether a manager can build a team that fosters empathy when the larger the organization doesn’t.
Intuitively, you might get the sense that empathy and compassion play a key part in the making of a Culture First organization. Yet their definitions, inherent differences, and potential downfalls remain somewhat of a blur, especially in the context of the workplace.
The next two episodes of the Culture First podcast are dedicated to bringing clarity and applicable knowledge around these skills. Part 1 focuses on applied empathy, while Part 2 will bring compassion fatigue into the light.
Next, we hear from Stacey Nordwall, Culture Amp’s People Program Lead about hardwiring empathy within the fabric of People Operations and employee experience.
Finally, Damon chats with Ellen Sweeney, Senior Director of People Operations at MeUndies, to learn about how the company approaches this, and how you can screen new hires for high levels of empathy.
And if you enjoyed this episode, subscribe and leave us an honest review.
Connect to Your Whole Self
As a gift to our podcast listeners, we’re offering “Connecting to Your Whole Self”, an excerpt from Michael Ventura’s book Applied Empathy.
DAMON KLOTZ: Hi, everyone. It’s Damon Klotz, host of the Culture First podcast. To bring each episode to life, we offer to our listeners – that would be you, thanks for listening – a downloadable asset to help you take action on the ideas percolating after each episode.
For this episode, we are offering as a gift Connecting to Your Whole Self, an excerpt from Michael Ventura’s book, Applied Empathy. Head to Culturefirstpodcast.com/empathy to download your copy. All right, let’s get started.
I’m Damon Klotz and this is Culture First.
Welcome back to the Culture First podcast. In our last episode, we focused on the idea of soft skills, and we spent time trying to define just what exactly soft skills are. There was some debate about what we should call them, but what we all agreed upon is that they’re just not simply soft and fluffy and these things that make you feel warm inside. Soft skills are people skills. They’re life skills. They’re the skills that help us improve our relational intelligence. I think we can all agree that they’re something that you should be definitely developing, no matter what you want to call them.
DAMON KLOTZ: If you’re curious about how some of our listeners actually felt about this topic, search the hashtag #CultureFirstPodcast on Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIn. I really enjoyed partaking in some of those conversations and I encourage you to keep them going.
DAMON KLOTZ: So the last episode was all about defining soft skills, and if you’re brand new to this show, I highly encourage you to go back and listen to that episode first. But in this episode and the next one, we’re going to start to fine tune some of these life skills to help us really improve as employees, as leaders, so that we can create more Culture First organizations around the world.
One of these skills gets talked about a lot at work and the other not so much, and to make things even more complicated, I think that if we were to ask 10 people to define these two words, we’d get a lot of crossover between the two. But they’re both really important. I’m talking about empathy and compassion. We’re going to save compassion and compassion fatigue for the next episode, so let’s dive right into empathy, and specifically applied empathy. Don’t worry, we’ll unpack what applied empathy means by the end of this episode.
My first guest to talk about empathy is Michael Ventura, CEO and founder of Sub Rosa, and author of the book Applied Empathy. Sub Rosa is a strategy and design firm that has worked with some of the world’s largest and most interesting brands, from Johnson & Johnson to Pantone, Adobe, the Ted conference, Delta Airlines, and the Daily Show.
I had a fascinating conversation with Michael and I can’t wait to share it with you. Of course, we talked about the role of empathy in creating a Culture First organization, but we also talked about whether empathy is something that people are just born with or can it be trained. We also talked about ways that we can actually teach empathy.
One thing that might be surprising is that we actually talked about weaponized empathy in the office, something that I would hope to be more common in a Culture Last organization than a Culture First one. So there’s lots to cover here and it’s time to jump right in.
So, Michael, thanks for joining me.
MICHAEL VENTURA: Yeah, thanks for having me.
DAMON KLOTZ: We’re going to talk a lot about emotions today. So I thought I’d just maybe start with what emotion are you feeling the most right now?
MICHAEL VENTURA: At home, I would say, because I have been on the road for the past couple of weeks and today is only my second day back in the office. And it feels really nice to see the faces that are on the other side of emails for the past couple of weeks, and to sit in meetings where we’re not talking through phones, we’re actually looking at each other again, and it just feels good to kind of be back in the saddle.
DAMON KLOTZ: So what I would like to get out of this conversation is for our listeners to better understand how to define empathy, be empowered to bring it into their work, to collaborate and solve problems with it in a more fluid and elegant way. So what is your definition of empathy? And I know that you have come up with your own version of this called applied empathy, but if you could break down maybe the traditional types of empathy and then how you think about it.
MICHAEL VENTURA: Sure. So empathy unto itself as a word is really about perspective taking, right? Whereas sympathy is, you’ve felt this before and so you will mirror it with someone else, right? Or you’ll tell them that this is how you can sympathize because you’ve been through this too, right? That’s putting you into the conversation. Empathy is really just about the act of perspective taking, but there are three main types of empathy from a psychological standpoint.
MICHAEL VENTURA: There’s affective empathy. Affective empathy is sort of like golden rule empathy. It is almost more like sympathy, which is that I perceive you to feel a certain way. Let’s say sad. I’ve been sad before. When I’m sad, I want people to treat me this way, so I treat you that way. And the folly in that as a practice for business and leadership is that it puts my bias into it. What if when you’re sad you want to be left alone? When I’m sad I want to be consoled, right? I will have therefore done something that wasn’t terribly empathic to you, because I put myself into the equation.
The second is somatic empathy. This is physically feeling the emotions of someone else. You see this with spouses who have sympathy pains when their spouse is pregnant, or you see this in nurses who have empathy fatigue for their patients because they’re just feeling what they’re going through so much. Super hard to train, hard to plug into business context.
The third type of empathy is cognitive empathy, and that is the act of perspective taking, of really putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. And if affective is golden rule empathy, I like to think of cognitive as platinum rule empathy, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. And that act is really the foundation from which we built the idea of applied empathy.
DAMON KLOTZ: Let’s take a quick pause here. When I was sitting down with Michael and he was discussing the three different types of empathy, what you can’t see on my face that’s actually happening is like the mind blown emoji thing happening, because I was like wow, I’m actually seeing empathy in a brand new light.
Empathy is all about perspective taking, do unto others as they would have you do unto them. This is really different from just being compassionate towards their situation, which was actually my next question for Michael.
MICHAEL VENTURA: I think the big difference for me between empathy and compassion, there’s a lot of similarity. That Venn diagram has a good chunk of overlap. They both require perspective taking to gain deeper understanding of another person. But there is, as we said earlier, ways that empathy can be used positively or negatively vis-a-vis its application. Compassion is never negative. Compassion is always on the positive, and compassion is often always attached to some form of mirroring. Because I see this, I’ve seen it in me too and I can reflect that back to you with more sympathy or compassion because I see what you’re going through. And the line between sympathy and compassion is even more blurred in many ways too.
But empathy is not inherently as a practice, cognitive empathy, always good. What we need to remember when practicing empathy is the acquisition of information is only the first step. It is then in the application of it that we determine how best to put that information into practice.
DAMON KLOTZ: I was reading a study from Kellogg Northwestern and they described empathy as a critical but surprisingly complex thing. What is it about empathy that makes it so complex?
MICHAEL VENTURA: It is elusive for a lot of people because it has gotten this rap in the zeitgeist that it is a gift, and that some people have it and other people don’t. And I believe particularly with cognitive empathy that it’s a skill you train, and it’s a skill you practice. It is something that I think we can all do, and do better the more we work with it. But it does require commitment, it requires dedication, it requires some training, but it can play a really critical role in not just interpersonal relationships or leadership or building a better culture inside an organization, but also how to connect with others outside of your organization, be that consumers or the media or what have you, and often overlooked, how to connect more meaningfully with yourself and understand facets of yourself that maybe have been in the blind spot.
DAMON KLOTZ: So here at Culture Amp, we obviously talk a lot about the importance of taking action on your company culture. So not just looking at the feedback or listening, but actually taking action on the initiatives that are going to improve the people and culture and the experience that people ultimately have at work.
MICHAEL VENTURA: Right.
DAMON KLOTZ: But when it comes to empathy, does it have any power on its own or is it always about having to take action?
MICHAEL VENTURA: Yeah, it’s a great question because it’s exactly why we called our approach applied empathy. Empathy unto itself is inherently passive. I could spend tons of time getting to know you, really understanding you, understanding what makes you tick, and then keep hanging out the same way we’ve always done, and keep working together the way we’ve always done, and not allow any of that to inform the way we interact with each other. It’s only in the application of empathy that the work starts to happen, and that the effects can start to be proven out.
The other thing to note on this though is that particularly with cognitive empathy, you can apply that in a myriad of ways, not all of which are good. Great sociopaths are great cognitive empaths, because if I don’t understand you, how can I manipulate you? It’s in that ability to cognitively put myself in your shoes that I can then say, okay, now here’s what I need to do to get my way or to manipulate the situation. We don’t want to breed more sociopaths, so one of the big important things with the work we do is also developing a code of ethics around how we will use the information we gather. Because if you don’t know I’m gathering this information, and/or if you don’t know how I’m using that information I’ve gathered, that’s unethical. It’s a critical component of practicing empathy that we are transparent about the acquisition of the information, and also its usage.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think that’s so important. So many decisions and projects and team structures are just happening without real symbolism, without real code of ethics, or without real language around, actually how do we want it. The how of the work really doesn’t get talked as much, as opposed to what we’re doing and has it been done.
MICHAEL VENTURA: Exactly. And I think it’s interesting when you start to see the missteps that the how can sometimes take when it’s not well thought out, or when people are moving too fast, and/or the pressure that is put on them for getting to a certain ROI or a certain sales number or whatever it is forces people’s hands to make poor choices with how they use information or relationships that they’ve cultivated.
DAMON KLOTZ: My next guest is Stacey Nordwall. Stacey has an MA with honors in counseling psychology from St. Mary’s College of California and a BA in psychology and communication from Stanford University.
DAMON KLOTZ: I’m a big fan of Stacey, but I’m a little bit biased because I’ve had the joy of working with Stacy at Culture Amp where she serves as the people program lead for leadership and learning. I reached out specifically to Stacy because I wanted to get some real boots on the ground perspective on how to implement empathy into the workplace.
DAMON KLOTZ: What are some of the ways that you can build a more empathetic on-boarding process?
STACEY NORDWALL: What I love to do when I’m starting to build a new people process is to put my design thinking hat on. So I like to develop the process really with a mind toward what is someone thinking and feeling as they’re going through this. And for on-boarding, what people are initially feeling I excitement, fear, uncertainty, overwhelm, and you want to build in the time and space that allows those emotions to happen, and you also want to think about that people come in really wanting to know some very practical things, things that are about belonging and what the norms are. So building in something where you address that kind of stuff as well, where it’s like, where do people get coffee? Do people eat lunch at their desks, or do they go into the lunch room? And making sure that you’re building in all of those kinds of things as well.
DAMON KLOTZ: It’s kind of like being empathetic for what they don’t know, and assuming that they are coming in with no knowledge and then making anything that could be an assumption a know, and to help them through that uncertainty.
STACEY NORDWALL: Yeah. If you want to set people up so that they don’t have to wonder what the norms are or what’s happening, you want to remember what it’s like to walk into a totally new situation and have to try to figure things out, and then actually just make it so that people don’t have to figure out quite as much. I think about the process of developing our wellbeing guide internally. The team, as we started working on it, one of the things we did was we kind of jumped to solutions. I had us all step back and ask, “What is it that you actually want people to feel when they come to work every day?” We had a discussion about that. It was about wanting people to feel safe, and feel that they belonged and things that were really involved in that kind of emotion.
Then the next question I asked was, “Where are the gaps? Where do you see the gaps? Let’s start working there.” Instead of jumping to a solution without going through this process of, “What do we want people to feel? Where do we think that might not be happening? Let’s start from there,” that we started going through that process instead. I think we came up with something that was very different than what we might have if we hadn’t stepped back to think about that experience that people were having and that we wanted them to have.
DAMON KLOTZ: Ellen Sweeney is the senior director of people operations at MeUndies.
ELLEN SWEENEY: MeUndies is around 180 people. That’s including our headquarters, our fulfillment center, and our retail stores. In our headquarters, we are about 75 people.
DAMON KLOTZ: Now, I’ve spoken at events at the MeUndies in Los Angeles. They’re also long time years of the Culture Amp platform. Ellen and I sat down to speak about how MeUndies thinks about their employee experience. We also find out whether you can screen new hires for high levels of empathy.
Even when I just say the word empathy, what are some of the first things that come up for you?
ELLEN SWEENEY: For me when I hear empathy, I think about creating a safe space. Creating a vulnerable environment where people feel comfortable and supported and that somebody is going to understand what it is that they’re going through and help them navigate that in the workplace.
What makes me the most excited is our mission beyond just underwear is to empower self-expression. We’re really a values-driven company. We’ve cultivated the highly-engaged and vocal and inclusive community by celebrating people as they are. It really comes down to our belief that if you’re comfortable in what you wear and in who you are, then you’re unstoppable. That’s really what we try to practice every day in our company.
DAMON KLOTZ: MeUndies just didn’t start selling underwear and then find themselves with this amazing culture. No, this is something that they had to create through vision, values and intention. Of course, a lot of that starts at the top with their CEO, Jonathan Shokrian.
He said that conscious growth and profitability puts you in control of your destiny. It helps you stay true to your founding purpose and creating a better company culture. Why has this strategy been so important and so successful to the actual growth and story of MeUndies?
ELLEN SWEENEY: Yeah, I think, when he says that, he really means it. A lot of startups have this mindset of creating hockey stick growth and they want to be the unicorn. They’re taking a lot of cash upfront, but then they’re stuck with creating return on it and all of a sudden your decisions become money and investor-focused instead of customer-focused.
ELLEN SWEENEY: It’s been really important for us to stay lean with steady growth, to allow us to keep our focus on the purpose, which is our customers and obviously the most important to me, our employees. Because of that, we’ve been able to create an environment where our employees are our top priority. That’s allowed us to cultivate a really beautiful culture.
DAMON KLOTZ: One of the most important and also potentially stressful parts of an employee experience, depending on your relationship and some of the previous experiences you’ve had, is with your performance development or performance management process. In some organizations this is really well thought out and it is quite empathetic towards the employee.
Then in other times, I know in places I’ve worked it might just be an afterthought conversation. It can be quite a stressful actual process for someone to go through. From your perspective, what role does empathy play in your performance development process?
ELLEN SWEENEY: Empathy in performance development I think is incredibly important. Because talking about your career growth or compensation or how you’re feeling at a company and where you’re going is really a terrifying thing. What we have tried to do is make it really comfortable and make sure that everybody understands how to have those conversations so that it can always feel like a two-way communication versus, “I’m going to as your manager sit down and give you feedback and you’re going to listen. Then you’re going to leave the room.”
ELLEN SWEENEY: We’ve tried to make it a really open dialogue. There is weekly one-on-ones between managers and their direct reports where sure they’re going through things in the business and what they’re working on, but that’s also an opportunity for feedback on a regular basis. We have a very transparent process in our annual compensation reviews where people know exactly what to expect and when those things are coming up to try and remove the fear around those things.
But also, especially as a people team, our job is to make sure that our team members feel empowered to have those conversations with their managers. There’s a lot of coaching and empathy that happens to prepare them to have those. There’s a lot of people that will come to me and say, “Hey, I want to understand how I ask my manager for promotion. What do I do to navigate that conversation?” It’s then on me to empathize with how scary that could be to bring up and coach through how to approach that topic comfortably.
DAMON KLOTZ: Let’s take a quick pause here. I’m going to do a quick plug. I just can’t help myself.
MeUndies uses the culture and performance product to build a process that minimizes bias and maximizes empathy. If you’re listening to Ellen and saying, “I want the same for my performance management process,” make sure you head over to the Culture Amp website to learn more about our performance product.
DAMON KLOTZ: Now that I’ve got that out of the way, let’s get back to my conversation with Ellen. Do you have specific examples of questions that you think an empathetic leader should be asking during a one-on-one?
ELLEN SWEENEY: One-on-ones are a really important time to connect with your direct report. I think that keeping those as a regularly occurring touch base that everybody knows what to expect and when it’s going to happen is of critical importance to show that you value your direct reports time and you value spending an hour with them every week to just talk one-on-one. We always encourage our managers to kick those off conversationally. Check in on how they’re doing and ask more prompting questions.
Often they start with, “Hey, how’s everything going? Your direct report says good.” Then you move right into business as usual. But it’s important to dig in a little bit to make sure that they actually are good. It might be asking a more pointed question of, “Hey, you presented yesterday to a group of 40 people. How did that make you feel?” Or, “I noticed that you had a difficult back and forth with somebody on another team. Do you want to talk about it?” Asking those questions to create this safe space where they feel comfortable expanding beyond just saying, “Yeah, everything’s cool. Let’s just talk about work.”
DAMON KLOTZ: In your perspective, how do you try create a more empathetic onboard experience at MeUndies and a more empathetic exit experience at MeUndies?
ELLEN SWEENEY: For our on-boarding experience, I think we really try to practice empathy with building a safe place. Starting a new job is terrifying. You’re new. You don’t know anybody. It could be your first job in a very long time or first new job in a very long time. We try to make people feel very comfortable. In everybody’s first week, they have an end of first week check-in with people ops and with their manager. As their time goes on, we of course as I mentioned, have the 30, 60, 90 day check-ins as well to make sure that things are continuing to feel safe.
ELLEN SWEENEY: But one of my favorite things that we do when somebody joins is provide them a welcome buddy. We pair them with somebody that they potentially will be working with cross-functionally or somebody we feel like they might really connect with. That person is set up as a person that they can ask anything they want to. I think when people join they feel like they’re going to have a lot of dumb questions. Like, “Where do I park? What do people do for lunch?” We want people to feel comfortable asking anything and everything to somebody that maybe isn’t people ops or isn’t their manager, just a built in person that can kind of support them as they learn how MeUndies works.
ELLEN SWEENEY: In terms of the off-boarding piece, I think that might be where empathy is the most important, whether it’s on somebody’s own terms or on the company’s terms. Treating people as humans and really humanizing that process has always been really important to MeUndies. When there is somebody moving on from MeUndies, it’s of utmost importance that we make sure that they feel like they’re leading on the best of terms, no matter what it is. We’re here to support them, whether it be references or helping them find what’s next.
It’s a really big priority to us that even if MeUndies wasn’t the right long-term fit for any reason, we want to and are invested in making sure that they find the right long-term fit if it’s not here. I also think that that event continues into after people have moved on from MeUndies. We really strive as a company to make sure that we’re representing those people well here. We don’t want to disparage the people who have worked here. We don’t want to treat them as anything less than human. It just sometimes isn’t the right long-term fit. That’s totally fine and perfectly natural, especially in a fast growing company.
DAMON KLOTZ: If someone’s listening to this and they’re like, “You know what? This sounds like the sort of company that I want to apply for. I’m willing to move to Los Angeles.” Or, “I’m already in Los Angeles and I want to apply for a job at MeUndies,” is empathy an important skill that you look to hire for? If it is, how do you actually try to assess that in a candidate?
ELLEN SWEENEY: Empathy is one of the most important things that we’re looking for when we’re hiring for people to join this team. As I mentioned before, we have six core values that we really believe in. We try to vet against all of those during the interview process. I don’t like to call it culture fit because they don’t think that’s an accurate term for what we’re looking for. We’re not looking for people to fit in to exactly how we are, but we’re really looking for people that are going to add in a great way to the organization and building relationships and feeling comfortable expressing themselves and accepting others for expressing themselves and being resilient, keeping cool, being humble, all of these things.
We like to vet those in questions very specific to experiences that can showcase how they are in relationships and building connections with their managers or direct reports or cross-functionally. Really just understanding how they’re answering questions. If you’re talking through something wonderful that they rolled out at their current company and all you hear is, “I did this. I did that. I did this.” They’re not saying, “I empowered my team to do this.” Or, “I worked cross-functionally to achieve this.” Those are the kinds of things we’re really looking for.
I’ll share one more story because it just happened last week and it truly brought tears to my eyes. This person had reached out to our support team and needed to cancel her membership for her husband who had unfortunately passed away. Instead of the customer experience agent just replying and saying, “Okay, cool. I’ve canceled your membership.” She sent a wonderful heartfelt message and spent the time to look up this woman’s late husband and understand what he was involved in and what he was a part of. We made a donation to an organization that he was a big part of.
The impact that had for this woman who had to do such a daunting task of reaching out to a company to cancel a membership of her late husband was just such a moving moment for me that we’re doing so much more than underwear and empathy for other humans is the most important thing that matters at this organization.
She didn’t even tell anybody that’s what she did. She wasn’t looking for any recognition for going above and beyond. The only reason we even knew is because the customer had shared the story on Facebook and we found it. We said to Andy, the customer experience agent, “That’s so incredible that you would do something like that.” She was like, “Oh, yeah. Of course. It was just a no-brainer.” It wasn’t because she wanted anything out of it. It just was the right thing to do.
DAMON KLOTZ: Thanks to Ellen Sweeney of MeUndies for speaking with me. Make sure you go check them out and maybe even get a pair for yourself. This is not a sponsor plug. I’m just a fan and a customer.
All of this sounds great, right? We know that empathy is good for you. It’s something that we should all want in our offices. In the long run, it will really help us build companies that are profitable, sustainable, and helps us improve our relationships at work. But if you’re a leader or a manager, how do you do your part in helping to make this happen?
Let’s return to Sub Rosa’s Michael Ventura and get his thoughts. Something that every manager has to do potentially monthly, quarterly, yearly based on the current structure is measure an individual’s performance. What questions should a manager ask during an individual’s performance development process in order to really understand whether that individual has a high or low level of empathy.
MICHAEL VENTURA: The manager or the person they’re managing?
DAMON KLOTZ: The person they’re managing.
MICHAEL VENTURA: The person they’re managing. I think it would be good to understand what they perceive their ability to empathize is relative to what the feedback is from a peer review, let’s say. That’s one way we’ve often done it is when you’re looking at a peer review of folks, because I think 360s are really the only way to get at that. If you’re only looking at top down and bottom up, you’re only getting one vector. So, that’s one way of thinking about it and seeing how they view themselves with respect to their ability to apply empathy and then what their peers would say about that. Of course, what their manager would say too or any direct reports.
Another thing that we found really interesting, though, is if you give a manager the same question for themself and say, “How am I doing as a manager for you?” They would probably have one answer. Obviously, the person for whom you’re asking the question will have a different perspective perhaps on that, but the gap between the two is often the piece of work that needs doing. There’s been this trend of late that people have been writing these self user manuals. It’s like, “If you want to manage me, here’s my user manual. I don’t do well in the morning, I need some alone time. Then by 11:00, I’ll be up and running.” Of course, every organization is not going to adhere to that perfectly, but I’ve found them to be this novel, very millennial way of presenting the information to a manager prophylactically and saying, “This is how you can use me best in this role.”
It may not be 100% possible, but let’s start from where my perspective is and where I can add the most value. And then let’s figure out a way to work together to get there.
DAMON KLOTZ: I want to focus a little bit on teams and the relationship between manager and teams, specifically. Can you give me some examples of questions that an empathetic manager should be asking during their one-on-one with an employee?
MICHAEL VENTURA: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think the first place to start is often a check-in. Where are you at right now? Is this the right time to be having this conversation? Are you in the right head space? Even before you get into the nuts and bolts of the role, making sure this is the moment. Right? I think that often we overlook that because we’re all running on tight schedules and it’s like, I’ve got this review for the next 30 minutes, and we’ve got to make it great so let’s sit down and dive right in.
But are we actually doing that check-in? It takes 60 seconds, and it sometimes makes the world of difference for people. So starting there, then asking the questions about their own perception. How do you feel you’re doing? Where do you think you can use help? Because starting there will allow them to soften a little bit to open up the self reflection that is needed in order to sometimes give feedback that maybe they don’t want versus if they sat down and said, “I’ve got three things I need to tell you. One, you’re not delivering fast enough, two.” All of a sudden guards go up, shields go up and that conversation’s going to be very different. So training that ability to have, going back to doctors, a good bedside manner and the ability to actually create the circumstances where self-reflection, growth and feedback giving can be taken are really critical to making sure that managers and teams are meeting halfway.
DAMON KLOTZ: That’s why I love the questions, like tell me more about that. Help me understand. You allow them to actually… rather than you say, here’s exactly what I’m hearing and firing some poorly timed feedback, is actually, let’s unpack this a bit, but I want you to unpack it and then that’s when the empathy can really obviously be so much more powerful.
MICHAEL VENTURA: Yeah. I said to a colleague the other day who was struggling with figuring out a way to deliver some feedback to one of her direct reports and I said, “Well, just start with how that information that landed on your desk made you feel and just don’t even worry about them and just say, you know what? This is what I heard and this is how that made me feel. How do you feel about this?” That shift in the dialogue actually created the space where the person hearing this feedback, was able to see it from a perspective other than their own quickly.
DAMON KLOTZ: Are there some real visible signs that a team inside an organization has strong empathy?
MICHAEL VENTURA: I think one of the first ones is you’ll see a collegial nature. It doesn’t necessarily mean niceness. Right? Going back to that idea of empathy doesn’t always have to equal nice, but you’ll see… I sometimes refer to it as a sports’ analogy, so forgive me, but it’s the no look pass ability. You have a sense of each other and you know, even if you didn’t see them with your eyes, you know where to throw the ball because you know they’re there. So metaphorically that that can play out in a lot of different ways on teams. It can show itself in the way of speed. It can show itself in the way of performance. It can show itself in the way of just the banter and the pre-meeting chatter that happens when everyone’s getting their seat in the conference room and you can get a sense of like, “Oh, these people really like working together. They understand each other, they know their quirks, they know their nuances.”
To me that’s when it gets exciting, when we said at the beginning of this interview, it’s nice to be back home. It’s nice to be in this office and seeing the team. So one of the other things that you can start to see with teams when they’re working in that way is the sweetness or the kindness or the intuition they have for how to work with someone in a way that gets the best out of them and I think that’s what great coaches do. That’s what great leaders do. It’s not about one size fits all management or one size fits all collaboration. The way someone works with me might be different than the way someone works with someone else, but the deftness to pivot your work style depending on the person you’re working with really is a true act of empathy.
DAMON KLOTZ: How is decision making different in a team that is showing high empathy?
MICHAEL VENTURA: I think it’s a lot more transparent. I think that you know why decisions are made. Do you have a better visibility into the input and the criteria through which a decision is going to come to bear? I think that over time, that the speed in which decisions get made increases too because you have that rhythm, you have that muscle memory together and you have that trust, which I think is a critical and fundamental component of this as well.
DAMON KLOTZ: So say that you work at a company that does not really have empathy built into its values or structure, can you still actually build a team that fosters it?
MICHAEL VENTURA: Yes, I think… well, yes you can, but it is harder I think is probably the better way of saying that. Often we get asked to come in, particularly in large multinationals, you’re not always going to have it come from the top down from the CEO that says, “We want to make this a more empathic culture.”
MICHAEL VENTURA: What you might get is the design team or the marketing team or the comms team or the HR team who says, “Hey, we need to start to bring this into our org. Can you help us pilot it? Can we get a win on the board? Can we start small and grow?” So a lot of our work often begins with a team or a division or region. Once we see the momentum and the effect of practicing this, then it starts to create that groundswell.
DAMON KLOTZ: You start seeing a certain manager who’s running this team, and then people start saying, “I wouldn’t mind being on that project, on that team.” Then a lot of this inbound interest. The same way I think like technology gets deployed sometimes in companies you have to find a pocket first. Someone who’s willing to take a chance and innovate.
DAMON KLOTZ: I think building an empathetic team and having a great leader, you’ll soon find people wanting to start this little heat map starts happening and you’re like, “Something’s happening over here.”
MICHAEL VENTURA: Exactly. It does become infectious in a positive way in that you start to see not only do those teams start to perform at a higher level and attract talent from throughout the organization, but they also retain talent more meaningfully as well. You start to see how it becomes this space people want to spend time in. Then that kind of excitement, once you’ve got that ember burning, you just have to keep fanning it and the and the whole place will go ablaze.
DAMON KLOTZ: In a beautiful way.
MICHAEL VENTURA: Yes, exactly. In an empathic way.
DAMON KLOTZ: What tension points should you expect to arise between your team and the larger company culture and then how can a manager actually navigate that contrast when there is that divide between we’ve now got this little ember burning, yes. If you were saying that you’re got an empathetic team and then the company is like, “Hang on, that’s happening there?” What are those tension points and how do you actually maybe fan that in a way that actually does allow it to grow and it doesn’t just become this one little pocket?
MICHAEL VENTURA: Yeah. There’s an archetype in companies that I refer to sometimes as the tooth sucker in the room and this is the person who crosses their arms, leans back in the chair and goes [inaudible 00:00:36:58]. They’re calling BS on this idea, right? Because they hear empathy and they hear it as a soft term and a soft skill and they discount its value. So one of the ways to fan that ember is to start to look at the results in the data. What we see when we start practicing this work, you’ll see the emergence of high functioning teams within a few months, you’ll start to see that these teams have higher out and more effective output. That they collaborate better together, that the recruitment and retention of talent starts to improve. You start to see the connection and the efficacy of marketing to certain audiences in the world become more effective because ultimately we’re listening and we’re understanding those audiences and their needs and we’re meeting them halfway. So all of that is measurable.
MICHAEL VENTURA: If you try to measure empathy itself, it’s much harder. I mean, we’re not going to put brain sensors on people and watch them walk around the office. I mean, some people do, but that’s not the point of this. Right? So what we have to do is have the will and the patience to wait for the effect of this to be visible and measurable and then point to that as a proof point as to why we need to invest in it further.
DAMON KLOTZ: That wraps up our look at empathy and specifically applied empathy in the workplace. Just to be clear, when we say applied empathy we’re saying that empathy on its own is passive, inert. It doesn’t actually do anything. It’s only in the application of empathy where we start to see real change.
So my challenge for you is to think about an interaction you’ve had at work recently where you felt empathetic, but didn’t change your behavior. The challenge is to be conscious of this and take action on it next time. Let me know how you go and if you find that there’s any barriers that are blocking you, I’d love to learn and help unpack this with you. Another thing you could do is maybe read some of Michael Ventura’s book, Applied Empathy. Well, great news, we’ve got you covered. You can head to Culturefirstpodcast.com/empathy right now and download an excerpt for free. Let’s get started on changing organizations, cultures for the better.
That’s our show for today. A huge thank you to Michael Ventura of Sub Rosa, Ellen Sweeney of MeUndies and Stacey Nordwall from our beloved Culture Amp. If you liked this episode or our previous ones on soft skills, now would be an excellent time to send this to someone in your life or to another company that you think might be inspired, by what our bringing guests had to say. There’s actually a share button in every podcast app, so right now you can just click it and send it to your manager or a colleague. It’s okay, I’ll wait, you’re the best. Thank you so much for your support of Culture First, a podcast produced by culture Amp, the people and culture platform.
If you’re looking to improve your organization’s culture, Culture Amp is the platform for helping you do that. Fun fact, when I joined Culture Amp, we were working with a little over 100 Culture First companies. Did you know that we now work with the likes of Adobe to Airbnb, Kind bars to McDonald’s, Oracle to the Oak Tree Foundation, and Wikimedia to Ticketmaster, but wait, there’s more. We also work with sporting associations, sports teams, hospitals, law firms, and thousands of other organizations. You can learn why they love working with us at cultureamp.com. All right, well make sure you’re subscribed, so you’ll hear our next episode on compassion fatigue. It’s another great one. We’ll see you soon.