Empathy: An Invaluable Asset in Startups

It’s interesting to me that so many blog posts, books and other media nowadays focus on the hard skills (e.g., selling, coding, etc.) required to build a company, or to otherwise scale a successful startup.  Most companies today have figured out how to hire for hard skills.  Hard skills are readily ascertainable, verifiable by former employers and can, in many cases, be tested as part of the hiring process.  At my firm, we typically require new potential hires to review and markup certain documents that a lawyer practicing in our space would typically encounter.  We are testing hard skills.  But I don’t think great hires end with great hard skills.  There’s really more at work in a successful startup than just great hard skills and if you want to have successful employees in your startup, then I truly believe you need to hire for more than just great hard skills.  You need to hire for soft skills as well.

I would argue that soft skills (e.g., ability to relate to people, to form connections, to understand body language, to know how to effectively communicate, etc.) are equally, if not more, important than hard skills.  This goes for both employees and leadership.  Collectively, soft skills coupled with hard skills make execution more likely.  And, let’s be honest, execution is the real genesis of success in startups.

I think one of the most under-rated soft skills is empathy.

em * pa * thy

the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary goes on to describe empathy as follows:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another of either the past or present without having the feeling, thoughts, and experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

This is no grand revelation on my part, as many others have written on the topic – as you can see here, here, here, here, here, here and here (to provide just a few).  Nonetheless, I can hear people laughing at me already.  I can recount a number of clients over my 19 years of practice that had cultivated enormous success, while at the same time having little, if any, empathy.  These individuals are used by many as examples to counter the argument that empathy is an important asset.  But we all know that is not true.  The logic fails.  Those individuals succeeded despite their failure to empathize and that is not a model to follow.  Even Ebenezer Scrooge learned that lesson.

With men still dominating executive teams in startups (hopefully something that will continue to diversify), the male machismo can remain untamed and unchecked.  But, if you think success in business is all about charging up the mountain and literally “willing” people to do your bidding, then I think you are going to face a harsh reality.  Anyone that has run a company knows as well as I do that the reality of managing and encouraging people isn’t about forcing them to execute.  In the end, great businesses are built on the shoulders of people who want to be on the team, believe in the mission, care about the company and its goals as if they were their own.  Loyalty as such isn’t a miracle, and it’s not happenstance.  It grows out of the culture of the business.  I’ve found that management teams, and employees, that understand how to be empathetic in the right situations are capable of growing company cultures that breed loyalty and an endless passion to the mission.

This may be a turn off to many that consider vulnerability (a key component of empathy) a sign of weakness, rather than a foundation of mature emotional intelligence.  But the power of empathy should not be underestimated.  Even the military recognizes that “empathy is an abstract tool that leads to tangible results.”[1]  Why do people struggle with empathy?  In his Empathy article, Lt. Col Garner states:

empathy implies risk on the part of the leader.  It requires increasing one’s level of humility and lowering one’s perceived position of power.  As the leader demonstrates empathy, he reveals his feelings and values to the organization.

Read:  being empathetic requires you to be vulnerable – the literal antithesis of what the modern business world will lead you to believe you need to be successful.  Let’s be honest, many people in the business world see huge risks in revealing their true feelings and values to their organization.  For many leaders, and even employees, their work role takes on a certain persona.  But in doing this, people really miss the true miracle in empathy – it leads to authenticity.  Authenticity can lead to more sales, to better employee relations, to better working relationships with board members and VC investors.  Reliance on relationships and personal connections are what lead companies through the toughest of times.  Empathy will create solid foundations in relationships and personal connections.  This ability to relate and connect with others will build a level of trust that will pay off one thousand fold when your startup is hockey-sticking and employees are working endlessly towards the mission.  Don’t kid yourself into believing that decent salaries and good stock options will have the same effect.  Even more relevant for startups is the fact that empathy can be particularly important when the workforce is culturally diverse.

Take, for example, sales people.  Empathy is a great skill for sales.  Why?  Well, in general, empathetic people are superb at identifying and satisfying the needs of clients and customers.  Being active or reflective listeners, empathetic sales people want to hear what the customer has to say.  They aren’t at the sales meeting to just deliver a pre-determined pitch.  No, they are actively listening during sales calls and iterating their pitch as they go in an attempt to curate the pitch as much as possible to the perceived needs of the client or customer.  Empathetic sales people listen carefully, they identify what clients or customers really care about and they respond to those specific perceived needs.  This will result in higher sales (all other things being equal).  It may also turn your sales people into an incredible product feedback loop.  How?  Well, when sales people are actively listening during sales calls, they may also identify ways in which the product is not working for the client, or other features or functionality that are important to customers.

How do you bring the soft skill of empathy to your organization.  Try using some of the following to improve your own empathy skills and, in turn, those of your employees and leadership team:

  • Validate how others feel.  Show vulnerability.  Be selfless.
  • Explore and get in touch with your own stereotypes, prejudices and biases.  You’d be surprised how your cognitive biases, unbeknownst to you, are affecting the way you manage.
  • Do not judge and avoid “jobservations” (judgmental observations).
  • Increase your ability to understand other’s nonverbal communications because often people do not openly communicate what they feel.
  • Practice the 93% rule.  Words account for 7% of the total message communicated.  The other 93% communicated is in body language.  Frowning, yawning or looking at one’s watch, demonstrate a lack of interest and understanding.
  • Listen and be in the moment.  Be fully present.  Do not do other things while communicating.  Do not email, take calls, work on paperwork.  This is disrespectful and demonstrates you have other priorities.
  • Smile.  Demonstrate a good attitude – an attitude that you want to be there.
  • Encourage people, particularly the quiet ones.  Affirm what they said and ask lead-in questions to seek clarity.
  • Show people you care by taking an interest in them.  Show genuine curiosity about their lives.  Ask questions about hobbies, their challenges, their families and their aspirations.
  • When you visit an employee, don’t stand while you talk.  Sit down and get on the same level.
  • Have a finger on the pulse of a department or organization.  Learn to read the mood.[2]

I’ll think the results will surprise you.


[1]  Empathy, Military Review (November December 2009), by Lt. Col. Harry C. Garner.

[2]  What’s Empathy Got To Do With It? by Bruna Martinuzzi (2008).

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