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The importance of empathy

The importance of empathy
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First Published: Sun, Jun 06 2010. 06 31 PM IST

Resonant’ leader: N.R. Narayana Murthy is a leader who cares. Akshay Mahajan/Mint
Resonant’ leader: N.R. Narayana Murthy is a leader who cares. Akshay Mahajan/Mint
Updated: Sun, Jun 06 2010. 06 31 PM IST
It was just another busy day in 1994. Infosys was 450-strong. Narayana Murthy, then CEO, had reached the headquarters after a gruelling overseas visit. But his first stop on return was the hospital where a young Infoscion lay in ICU, diagnosed with a debilitating complaint. After meeting the employee’s parents and his young bride, Murthy urged the hospital to pull out all stops in getting the best medical attention to the patient. Every day till the tide turned, he monitored the situation personally. Even today the employee and his family remember with gratitude and pride the concern shown by the organization and its leaders in what was literally a life-and-death situation.
Resonant’ leader: N.R. Narayana Murthy is a leader who cares. Akshay Mahajan/Mint
Cut to a decade later. Infosys now has more than 25,000 employees. NRN (Murthy) lands in a city late in the evening from yet another overseas trip. Informed about the untimely death of an employee in the city, he heads straight to the home of the bereaved to pay his respects to the departed soul and condole with the heartbroken family.
The folklore of successful corporations is full of such personal stories; stories which demonstrate how great organizations, following cues from the corner office, consistently demonstrate what interesting research states is a key leadership trait—empathy! But what exactly is empathy? The simplest and most elegant definition I have come across is organizational development consultant Robert Bacal’s: the ability to “walk in another person’s shoes”.
Research corroborates that the need of the new global world is for “resonant” leaders. Leaders who effortlessly combine organizational needs with empathy, who understand not just the technical aspects of their organizations but are also more “attuned to….their people and their external environments….to their hopes, dreams, challenges and experiences”, as leadership consultants Annie Mckee and Suzanne Rotondo put it in Guiding Organizations through Empathy, Capital magazine, June 2007.
Now look beyond the leader to the organization. The empathy quotient of an organization reveals itself in many ways, both soft and hard. It is seen in the way organizations respond to the good and the bad in the lives of employees—celebrating with the happy and mourning with the sad. It is seen in the investment in senior organizational resources who can be trusted confidants to employees, touch points in times of crisis, be available 24x7 (no switched off messages on the mobile phone, please!).
It shows up in the way decisions are formulated, communicated and deployed. A group of senior executives at a once iconic company, known for its many great practices, told me with resignation how empathy went out of the window when it went ahead and handed out pink slips on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Further, it chose to communicate layoffs through voicemail messages, with scant regard for the sentiment, or indeed the dignity, of the recipient.
The lack of empathy is evident when line managers embarrassingly come to know of their subordinates’ promotion/transfer/increment from the subordinates themselves. Clearly, a case of not being anywhere near, let alone walking in, the line manager’s shoes.
Well-intentioned organizational initiatives end up as nightmarish disasters with employee and company misalignment when implementation plans lack empathy. Of course organizations have to take hard decisions and go through the pain of implementing them to remain sustainable. The secret is to implement the change with sensitivity, yes, empathy, to different stakeholders and their concerns. This is demonstrated in how the communication is done, how individuals are grandfathered into the new order or how employee feedback is woven into every stage of the change programme itself.
The way work is structured, telecommuting, sabbaticals and providing for extended weekends through the holiday schedule, the introduction of lifestyle enhancement initiatives addressing the “whole” employee, recognizing the glazed looks and nervous twitches, and the IT-enabling of basic employee services such as joining formalities, loan applications and even the ease and speed with which separation formalities are handled, are all dimensions indicating an organization cares. One could consider them good management practices. But look at it another way and they are “empathy in action”. The motive for adoption is not just altruistic, but sound, pragmatic business sense.
A reader of this column, at the helm of affairs in a smaller organization, rued how big business woos and wins employee loyalty through the money route. To him, I strongly suggest exploring “organizational empathy” as a retention glue.
The key, of course, is HR’s customer-centricity. As a wise leader once remarked, “HR would be well-advised to emulate the politician in maintaining an effective process-to-empathy ratio at all times. When dealing with people issues,…before engaging process, frontload with empathy!”
Invest in empathy. It works...
Hema Ravichandar is an independent human resources consultant, who is on the board of Titan Industries Ltd and Marico Ltd. She was formerly global head of HR at Infosys Technologies Ltd.
Write to Hema at
hrmatters@livemint.com
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First Published: Sun, Jun 06 2010. 06 31 PM IST