Make my decisions better! (On empathy)

This is the third in a series focused on the characteristics that, in combination, allow rare BOLD leaders to accomplish what others struggle to do: drive innovation and transformative change. In other words – they move their organizations forward beyond whatever exists today into exciting opportunities. They do this effectively, bringing others with them, achieving meaningful results. I’ve included personal reflections about some of my own change experiences and what I’ve learned along the way.

The BOLD leaders I meet and interview have time and again reminded me of something I learned in grad school working on creative writing projects: listening to and incorporating many points of view make ideas better. Stronger. More relevant. Considering the impact on others of something you’re about to do will cause you to make different decisions.

That’s empathy. And empathy is the starting point for designing and executing more effective, innovative ideas – whether applied to new products, services, process changes and certainly in transformational situations where the stake are very high.

Many years ago, we won a project in a competitive bid situation that mushroomed into a long-term relationship with a BOLD leader, the division CEO of a global organization. When we were awarded the work, we asked the CEO why we were selected from the competing firms. Long story here but keeping it short, he said, “During our selection process you were asking me questions about our customers that I didn’t know the answers to, and I knew that couldn’t be good. We need those answers.” In a string of engagements, we worked alongside this CEO and watched his voracious appetite for information, and the empathy he displayed for his clients and his colleagues. He led tremendous, positive changes for the business, certainly, and for his customers, absolutely.

He didn’t give away his decision responsibilities, but he knew his ideas were made better by listening and absorbing the information he was able to assemble from many constituents.

Listening to and empathizing with others does NOT mean giving your decision rights away or making every decision a consensus effort. Quite the opposite. Because BOLD leaders have a natural ability to listen to and observe – empathize with – their customers and colleagues, they as a matter of course take in information and use it in their work. They translate implications, but very often, maybe most often, hold the decision for themselves – or for a select group who are driving the transformative initiatives. Consensus is a wonderful thing in the right situations, but significant change situations need a leader who is decisive, courageous, and able to apply empathy-based information while holding the accountability to use it effectively.

In our Aveus consulting practice, we’ve had the great fortune to witness many BOLD leaders in action. We see the impact they have on their customers and colleagues. I’ve seen leaders, sitting in a variety of roles inside organizations, deftly shift conversations without using a bully pulpit, but rather by empathizing with their teams and in the moment incorporating the input into specific guidance.

I’ve seen them in external settings absorb what customers are doing and saying and adjusting the decisions and actions they then make. The people who are providing points of view feel heard. They often glow with the appreciation for being considered. They know they contributed to making ideas better!

Questions for your consideration:

What’s the best idea you’ve had that was made better by empathizing with others before you finalized what you were going to do?

What do you do to check your ideas with others and incorporate what you learn?

Do you have favorite questions or certain tricks that work for you to keep your decisions and actions grounded in the implications they have for others? If so, do share!

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.