Could empathy be the key for business to unlock competitive advantage, or does it compromise efficiency and performance? This was the central question during UMIO’s Break Booster on Friday 13 December. In this workshop, Dr. Lukas Figge explored the most important questions concerning empathy in an interactive and experiential way.
Empathy has two levels. The first one is about relating to the feelings and emotions that another person is experiencing. The second one, which is often forgotten, is the ability to identify and fulfil another person’s needs and thereby contribute to his or her well-being.
Empathy is a hot topic in business nowadays. Just google it and you will find many articles highlighting the benefits of empathy for innovation, employee engagement, customer satisfaction, organisational learning and financial performance. However, apply it with care. Empathy can also have opposite effects if it comes at the expense of addressing sensitive issues that are crucial to delivering results.
Sketching a theoretical framework
About 30 professionals attended the Breakfast Booster with Lukas Figge at UMIO Café in Maastricht. Lukas is lecturer in Strategy & Entrepreneurship at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics and works as innovator and trainer at UMIO.
After a delicious breakfast, Lukas started by explaining that empathy at best has an instrumental function in Milton Friedman’s liberal worldview: use it when it increases profits. This is in contrast to the stakeholder model, in which empathy itself has more intrinsic value. He then sketched a framework, including the work of Brene Brown on courageous leadership and the work of Marshal Rosenberg on non-violent communication. This immediately made the playing field clear to the participants.
Are we doing the right things?
The basic assumption of the framework is that every person on this planet is experiencing feelings right now. Those feelings are caused by the fulfillment or non-fulfillment of universal and life-enriching needs. As an exercise, participants then had to identify and share their own feelings and needs of the moment.
This was followed by a group assignment. In groups of five, they explored and discussed benefits and downsides of empathy. The term effectiveness came out remarkably often in the results, for most groups as an advantage of empathy and for some groups as a disadvantage. Apparently, empathy has a lot of influence on effectiveness and therefore on the question ‘Are we doing the right things?’.
Unlocking collaborative advantage
At the end of the session, Lukas explained that studies show that empathic care can jeopardise personal gains and benefits in competitive contexts where value capture is more important than value creation. However, it has major benefits for value creation and unlocking the collaborative advantage in organisations through the stimulation of connection, motivation and well-being.
Interesting and educational
This Breakfast Booster turned out to be an interesting and educational workshop with a group of enthusiastic professionals who were really working with each other and with Lukas. Everyone went home (or to work) happy and satisfied, because the workshop met the following needs of the participants: stimulation, collaboration, community, joy, presence, inspiration, discovery and learning.