Empathy is the secret weapon for building a great culture

Abtin Buergari / May 31, 2018

I’m going to get personal here, so I thought a preface would be nice –

I blame exactly no one for my personal shortcomings (including myself). Life is a journey and we are all developing. The push to build a business in my early 20s did great things for me, no doubt, but it led to a bunch of unintended negative consequences.

A big place I fell short in my journey has been embracing empathy rather than treating it as a weakness. This realization has been life-altering for me and I felt compelled to share this bit of my life learnings.

Thank you to the team at Model B for giving me an environment where I can steadily examine my shortcomings and, with their support, continue to address them.

While you can lead a team without empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of others helps you create a culture-first foundation that withstands the onslaught of challenges. Ultimately, as Terry Eagleton explains, culture is a “kind of social unconscious” developed by the daily actions/behaviors of your employees. These actions/behaviors become a pattern, turn into your culture, and ultimately define your organization’s edge.

When you are young and hungry, there are lots of lessons to be learned. 10 years ago, when I started my career, every obstacle seemed massive. I dealt with each by powering through, using my instincts, and always follow my number one rule:

Be Gritty. Push Forward. Fight. Grind. Win.

I saw every issue that arose in my business, my life, or my relationships, as one of these obstacles I had to power through instead of a chance to relate to others. A terrible symptom of the “My first business” training process.

Michael Woodward, a clinical psychologist who has worked with psychopathic murderers in high security prisons, said,

“[CEOs] come across as very charming, very gregarious. But underneath there’s a profound lack of remorse, callousness and a lack of empathy… They have certain characteristics like fearless dominance, boldness and a lack of emotion.”

For me, this “lack of emotion” acted as a shield that developed after hundreds of people told me my company had no “differentiation,” or that our services sucked, that I was mean, I was too young to understand things, etc. It’s a fun process of being beaten senseless by awful fears of rejection, while smiling and pretending that everything is okay.

As my cold/hardened shield grew stronger, I got significantly better at dealing with all the natural setbacks, whether professional or personal. I felt more empowered, more confident in my belief of our company’s mission, and more successful… so I thought.

I bet the same applies to many CEOs out there. They are hardened.

Our world starts out by naturally not accepting a new concept. Even if you have a valuable product for a market, alignment will not happen unless your persistence and excellent maneuvering slowly captures the attention and belief of your audiences. If the concept is powerful enough, you may even create a new norm (think Facebook). Many would conclude that a lack of empathy is necessary.

Five years ago, I didn’t realize the thing that made my company great for the first five years, was the deeply interconnected web of love between our employees, even though they had a leader that was singularly focused on winning. five years ago, I was on my way to a rude awakening.

Fast forward to the present and I’m sitting on the deck with my sister who wants me to empathize… and I just can’t. She’s dealing with an issue and I can’t listen without just offering solutions. Then, my wife, who’s struggling with some back issues, tells me that she doesn’t need me to keep sharing my thoughts on how she can fix her back. She just needs me to be supportive and loving.

As the dots started aligning in my head, the theme started becoming clear — more empathy equals more understanding, better engagement, better communication, and ultimately, much more winning.

Most importantly, through empathy, I can show my care for others better (professionally and personally).

Ultimately, a powerful company culture is built from the bottom up. It’s built to support its soldiers, warriors, and heroes. If they are not functioning well inside the walls, they can’t conquer new lands or defend their turf.

My behavioral shift started very recently. My goal, before opening my mouth, is to remember that the recipient of the message sees the world through their lens and their reaction will be colored by their experiences. My job is not to help fix their problem. My job is to listen and understand why they are challenged with what they are challenged with well before offering a solution.

When this mental shift becomes a habit, my ability to effectively communicate will infinitely grow.

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