Sunday, September 08, 2013

Empathy is the most underrated startup virtue

If you ask folks in the startup community to name the most important virtues an entrepreneur can possess, you'll hear a lot of votes for intelligence and persistence.  Hopefully integrity will make an appearance as well.  But few, if any, will name empathy.  And that's a shame.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (Google says so, so it must be true).  This ability is hugely valuable to founders because they need to consider the feelings of so many different constituencies.

1. Your Team
Being able to empathize with your team members helps you build a company for whom people want to work.  Understanding their feelings means you can know when you're pushing too hard, or when they need reassurance.

2. Your Customers/Users
The notion of the perfectly rational Homo Economicus has been thoroughly debunked; customers want to feel good about the goods and services they buy.  Apple has built their entire business around this.

3. Your Investors
Like your team and your customers, your investors are a key constituency.  But unlike your team and customers, your investors can fire you.  Far too many entrepreneurs fail to read their investors true feelings, seeing what they want to see.  If you empathize with your investors, you'll know what's worrying them and what you can do about it.  And you definitely don't want them worried.

Empathy is mostly about making the effort, but if you want a more systematic way to improve your skills, I recommend taking a peer counseling training class.


Jeremy Britton said...
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Jeremy Britton said...
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Jeremy Britton said...

One of the most important books I've read is about parenting. Specifically it's about the brain science (or neurobiology) of things like empathy.

Researcher John Medina offered descriptions like this:

When fighting, people tend to believe they are perfectly unbiased, informed, and objective, while simultaneously thinking their spouses are hopelessly prejudiced, clueless, and subjective. “Perceptual asymmetry” can lead to some nasty fights. Guess what? Other people can’t read our minds. Empathy reduces hostility. Here’s how:
1. Describe the emotional changes you think you see.
2. Make a guess as to where those emotional changes came from.

He also added:

After decades of research burning through millions of dollars, scientists have uncovered this shocker of a fact: We are most likely to maintain deep, long-term relationships with people who are nice. Many ingredients go into creating socially smart children.
A big one is the ability to empathize with the needs of another person. Your child must cultivate the ability to peer inside the psychological interiors of someone else, accurately comprehend that person’s behavioral reward and punishment systems, and then respond with kindness and understanding. This is empathy.

While his advice is couched in parenting children, it is applicable to all people (partners, employees, coworkers alike) because it is about success in a social setting, success as a group.

I've found that kind of advice enormously valuable in my day-to-day work as well as parenting. It validates everything you're saying about "empathy" being an underrated skill within startups!