According to Wikipedia, “emotional intelligence (EI), is the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s).” Science journalist David Colemen, who popularized the term “emotional intelligence,” indicates that EI accounts for “67% of the abilities deemed necessary for superior performance in leaders, and mattered twice as much as technical expertise or IQ.” So EI is twice as important to leadership as IQ? Wow!
A subset of EI is empathy which, again according to Wikipedia, “relates to an individual connecting their personal experiences with those of others.” Simply stated, empathy is the ability to sense, and relate to, what others are feeling. But why is this important? Why does EI in general and empathy in particular matter in business today? Why does entrepreneur Daniel Lubetsky say, “Empathy is one of our greatest tools of business that is most underused.” For more on this, particularly if you suspect you may be empathy deficient, please continue reading below.
“Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes.” ~ Dan Pink
Business today is all about performance. Either perform or you’re out. It doesn’t matter that you’ve been a top performer for the last 10 years. All that matters is how well you’re performing today . . . that is, if you’re working for a company that is devoid of empathy. If, on the other hand, you’re working for a company that values and practices empathy, you’ll probably get a visit from your boss (or maybe even your boss’s boss) to find out what’s going on with you. He or she may say something like, “You’ve been a superstar around here since your first day on the job, but suddenly you seem distracted and disinterested. You don’t seem to care about your work anymore, and that’s so out of character for you. Are you OK? We’re worried about you. Is there something going on we should know about?” Maybe the employee is trying to deal with marital issues or problems stemming from drugs or alcohol. Maybe the employee is worried about a sick child or about an unexpected financial setback or whatever. But if there is a problem that’s getting in the way of the employee’s performance, you’re not going to find out about it unless you ask.
“Are you nuts?” you’re saying to yourself. “I’m a busy CEO . . . too busy to spend my time going around and holding the hands of everybody who feels a little out of sorts.” OK, we get that. But if you’ve got someone who has a stellar track record, doesn’t it make more sense to try to salvage that person than to replace him or her. Finding a replacement is time-consuming and expensive. It causes a drop in productivity while the replacement learns the job and gets up to speed. And there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up with someone who will perform at the level of the person they’re replacing. No, it makes a lot more sense to see if the company can do something to return the current employee to the glory days when he or she was a top performer.
The U.S. Marines are famously, and fiercely, loyal to one another. In fact, it’s part of their creed that they never leave a comrade on the field of battle. Every Marine has the comfort of knowing that his fellow Marines will always guard her back. Very few organizations can match that level of tribal unity, so maybe those of us in business should learn a lesson from the Marines. After all, isn’t writing off an otherwise good employee who is suddenly experiencing performance issues akin to leaving a comrade on the battlefield?
Obviously, every business needs to hold its employees accountable to certain performance or productivity standards. If we don’t, we’re not going to be in business very long. But still, maybe we’re too quick to send someone packing only because their numbers have been off recently. Instead, guided by EI and empathy, shouldn’t we give an employee the benefit of the doubt and look a little deeper to see if there may be something going on that would explain the employee’s performance problems. When we do that, a number of good things happen:
- Obviously, we salvage a good employee and avoid the problems associated with finding and training a replacement.
- The employee will feel an emotional connection to the company . . . an organization that went out of its way to be helpful when the employee was struggling with some tough life issues.
- Other employees, watching this drama unfold, will see the company as a caring place that came to the aid of one of their own, and not just a bunch of beady-eyed number crunchers
So with the help of EI and empathy, we can add a human element to the company’s culture which will help build emotional connections between the company and its workforce, while simultaneously maintaining productivity at high levels and employee turnover at low levels. All and all, that’s a pretty good deal.