Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Ashoka's Forbes.com channel.
One of the hallmarks of a successful business is its ability to harness creativity to constantly push into new territory. Without growth and innovation, businesses stagnate and eventually fade away. Those with staying power, however, have mastered an intangible, often overlooked factor that allows them to focus on the future with clarity: empathy. While that may surprise many, I am certain that the ability to connect with and relate to others—empathy in its purest form—is the force that moves businesses forward.
Though the concept of empathy might contradict the modern concept of a traditional workplace—competitive, cutthroat, and with employees climbing over each other to reach the top— the reality is that for business leaders to experience success, they need to not just see or hear the activity around them, but also relate to the people they serve.
Some may think they see the results they want from doggedly pursuing their goals without much thought for other people, or others’ successes along the way. This attitude works for some, but at some point—often sooner rather than later—everyone needs to rely on their relationships and established personal and professional connections. These relationships are the product of taking an honest and dedicated interest in others and their businesses. Successful people do not operate alone; each of us needs the support of others to achieve positive results that push us toward our goals. True empathy combines understanding both the emotional and the logical rationale that goes into every decision.
Effectively understanding empathy involves viewing it as each person’s connection to the people and marketplace that surround them. A biological principle known as co-evolution explains that the adaptation of an organism is triggered by the change of a related object. Similarly, businesses and their leaders participate in co-evolution-type relationships. Business success depends on empathetic leaders who are able to adapt, build on the strengths around them, and relate to their environment. When businesses fail, it is often because leaders have stopped focusing on understanding their environment intimately and instead stay insulated in their own operations. Successful business leaders are receptive to disruption and innately aware of what is going on in their organizations both internally and externally.
Empathy must be the driving force behind business communication. Unfortunately, I have seen many situations in which people talk at each other, instead of making a concerted effort to listen and discover opportunities for collaboration. The catalyst for change is open, two-way communication. Once people are able to step out of their offices and mindsets, and experience vulnerability, they truly begin to feel what those around them are feeling. As I try to stress the importance of focusing on others and developing greater empathy, my question for these people is always, “How can you walk in someone else’s shoes if you never get out of your chair?”
To develop an effective workforce, we must be willing to compromise and meet people where they are. This can be frustrating and uncomfortable, particularly when you feel like your position makes more sense or offers a better solution. A critical part of developing empathy, however, is learning to understand, respect and implement another individual’s point of view rather than forcing your own.
Early in my career, I learned the power of empathy to break down barriers and open doors. I was responsible for overseeing my company’s largest division, which needed drastic improvements from a state of poor employee morale, lack of trust in leadership and customer retention issues. Rather than force my will and clean house, I sat down with each employee to gauge their feelings about the company and talk about how to improve results. Through empathetic employee engagement, we could create a pathway to success.
I wish I could say that there was a complete turnaround, but some employees felt that they would be happier elsewhere. We never stopped talking about what needed to be done, though—those who stayed knew that I was always open to new ideas. Giving others an outlet to express their thoughts, even when we disagreed, gave people a vested interest in the company’s direction and success. To paraphrase the great singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, our cracks let the light in.
The door for empathy opens when we suspend our disbeliefs and openly engage new ideas. Relationship-focused success expands capacity and potential, and empathy is a business skill that actually grows when practiced and shared. Although it may be unlike any practice you have ever used within your business, empathy in the workplace creates and encourages sharing ideas free from the fear of ridicule. If we are to keep our businesses relevant and our consumers happy, we must embrace empathy and let it be the force that drives us forward.