The empathy imperative

The empathy imperative

Baby shoes pic2By Pen Stuart

Ernest Hemingway’s famous 6-word story immediately puts the reader in the (tiny) shoes of someone else, forcing them to empathise. Indeed according to a new piece of research, well-written fiction has the unique effect of being able to boost the empathy skills of readers in their daily lives. Why is this important? Because business is suddenly taking empathy seriously. But this new KPI will only become valued if people work out ways to measure and improve it. (And before we proclaim a new age of business, leaders are generally short on empathy, according to recent research).

Despite this, there is a wealth of advantages from being empathetic, such as the transformative role of empathy in leadership. As the business world becomes more volatile, leaders need to help their teams adapt. But forcing change on people without understanding how it makes them feel – and making adjustments – ends in failure. Businesses also need to sell to new groups of consumers – people they have never had to consider before. This may be a retired woman in Germany who is cash rich and has few grandchildren to care for. Or it may be the young man in Nairobi working out what to do with his first paypacket. Currently these people are often reduced to demographic labels (‘the European over 60s’ and ‘the African middle class’), but without understanding these people on their terms, businesses risk failing to offer them what they really need: innovation needs to be founded on empathy.

But the speed of change means that empathising with consumers as they are today is not enough. Businesses also need to empathise with the future consumer. Big Data is sometimes proposed as the future for this – real-time, dynamic models that predict behaviour. But Big Data also generates misleading correlations, and is often built on faulty ‘small data’. It can help, but it is an incomplete solution, as it misses the empathetic human element you need to get to the best solutions.

If fiction is one way to improve empathy, by helping people engage with the imaginary, futures work is another, helping people tell stories about future consumers and co-workers, extending the range of the possible. And, as a recent Association of Professional Futurists gatheringindicated, there is growing attention to the ethnographic and empathetic approach in futures work. By approaching the future through the head, hands and hearts of the people who will make it, a wealth of opportunities is opened up.

The image at the top of the post, is from Poetry Genius, and is used with thanks


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