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Empathy: Today’s Greatest Competitive Advantage

Lo Kidd

April 14, 2020

At this very moment, pretty much all of us are in crisis mode. 

There is a pandemic on the loose, an economic crisis sweeping the globe, and we’re all stuck inside indefinitely. The last thing we need is for our employer (if we are lucky enough to have lasted all the layoffs) to not understand that we’re overwhelmed, to say the least. 

So forget empathy being the latest buzzword!

Empathy is the biggest competitive advantage in business and, dare I say, the only one that actually matters today. 

What even is “empathy?”

“Empathy is not about being nice, it’s about understanding,” explains Michael Ventura, Applied Empathy author and Training With Empathy speaker. It is the ability to recognize and understand the perspectives and experiences of others. 

But like many other EQ-reliant skills, empathy is not a soft skill that you either have or do not. (Yes, some people naturally are more empathetic.) But anyone can learn, develop, and refine how they understand others. 

“If you really train that muscle, you can actually get to a place where that understanding becomes second nature,” says Ventura. 

But many companies fail to bring empathy into their culture.

 We need empathy!

In a 2016 study with 150 CEOs, more than 80% identified empathy as the key to success. Yet, only 20% of companies offer any sort of empathy training for their leadership team. These numbers have not changed in the last 4 years.

Today, 92% of CEOs claim that their organization is empathetic. While only about 70% of their employees agree, a number that continues trending downward from previous years.  

The only metric that has notably increased across these studies is the percentage of people that believe businesses need more empathy. 

Why then, especially now, are there not more companies investing in building an empathetic culture?

The Costco-approach

Picture this. You are a CEO in 2008 America. Banks are being bailed out by the government. The economy as a whole is crashing. It feels like everyone you know is being laid off. And other businesses are shutting their doors. What do you do? 

Whatever answer you just gave, I bet it differs from how Costco responded to the Great Recession.

Then-CEO, James Sinegal, laid no one-off. Instead, he implemented that every Costco employee received a $1.50 raise and added stock options to their 401(k)s. He even took cuts to his own pay, which was already a fraction of what most other Fortune 500 CEOs make, so that Costco could afford to implement these changes. 

Why? Because Sinegal believed that during hard times, companies “should be figuring out how to give [their employees] more, not less.” 

Wall Street criticized the decision, claiming that failing to prioritize profits would put Costco out of business. Yet, prioritizing profits over people was what led to the recession, according to leadership expert Simon Sinek


ROE: return on empathy

A decade later, Costco is still in business. The company sees less than 6% annual turnover, happier employees, and consistent stock growth over the past few decades.

And even today, when other companies are crumbling under similar circumstances, Costco continues to flourish, with lines wrapping around their buildings nationwide. 

But this is no coincidence. 

Consistently, organizations with empathetic cultures, like Costco, recognize empathy as their competitive advantage

When 160 employers were indexed by how empathetic their culture is (Costco was not included in this study), parallels between the top rankings (Microsoft, Facebook, Tesla, and Google) proved just how advantageous empathy really is. 

According to the study, in the competitive landscape, empathetic organizations close more sales, grow faster, and are more cutting edge than those that do not. Inside the organization, their workers are more engaged, more productive, and better collaborators. 

They also see significantly less turnover. And at a personal level, their people are better leaders, problem solvers, and collaborators. 

Now more than ever

With everything feeling like it’s falling apart, the world needs empathy now more than ever. And with everyone connected by similar experiences, this is the perfect opportunity to start empathy training and introduce empathy to your culture. 

You can pretty much name anything that’s happening – COVID-19, a potential recession, general lack of activity – and understand their pain and stress, both emotionally and financially. 

And the companies that fail to properly respond to this situation are less likely to survive simultaneous crises. I know that sounds harsh. But, with empathy directly correlated to success, today’s businesses cannot afford to exclude empathy from their company culture.

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Learn to lead with empathy

On April 22, 2020, Trainual and Empathy Wines hosted “Training With Empathy”—a virtual wine-and-learn. Candid conversations included Uber’s Becky Karsh, VaynerX’s Claude Silver, Radical Candor author Kim Scott.

Register for exclusive event replays