Rethinking the Way We Think

By Francesca Mathewes

Jul. 10, 2019

Michael Ventura, applied empathy
Michael Ventura

Empathy is increasingly becoming a vital skill in the workplace. So says Michael Ventura, CEO and founder of Sub Rosa, a strategy and empathic design firm based in New York. Ventura’s entrepreneurship met the likes of major innovators such as General Electric and Google, fashion icons like Nike and Levi’s and institutions of knowledge and power including TED Conference and the Obama administration. In his book, Applied Empathy, Ventura unpacks what a career grounded in human experiences and creativity has taught him about empathy and offers this knowledge up to new entrepreneurs and executives alike.

Workforce: How do you define empathy? What does empathy mean to you?

Michael Ventura: Empathy overall has three subsets. Two out of three types of empathy [effective empathy and somatic empathy] are, in the business and leadership capacity, actually more troublesome than helpful. The third iteration is cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is about training the muscle of perspective-taking. That’s about learning how to stand in the shoes of someone else and see the world from their perspective. That deep understanding yields greater insight about this person and what they care about.

Our work is grounded in the premise of cognitive empathy. We call it applied empathy, because empathy unto itself is passive. I could ask you a bunch of good questions and I could gain a really deep understanding for you. But then I could just go on with my day as I always have and not let it affect our relationship or improve our relationship. So really it is only in the application of cognitive empathy that we get to a place where that understanding creates a deeper, more meaningful connection.

Workforce: How do you think some of your past workplace and life experiences have informed this understanding and interest in empathy?

Ventura: In creative businesses there’s often a tendency to shut the doors with a couple of smart people inside and say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” And you sort of make stuff up and get high on your own supply. I realized at some point in our business that that is unproductive and often ineffective, because it is just stroking the egos of a couple of people sitting in the room.

When we started practicing empathy and thought “Hey, maybe we don’t know the right way to do this, let’s go talk to people, let’s get inside their heads, go inside their houses and see how they live,” when we were immersed and asking questions and made the investment of going deeper with people, that was when our work got better time and time again.  

Workforce: What have been some specific situations or projects where using applied empathy has made a significant impact on the final result?

Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership Ventura: One of the times I often talk about was a piece of work we did with GE, where we were trying redesign the mammography experience. GE told us that they wanted us to figure out a way to improve the overall patient experience, but that we couldn’t change the machine. So we couldn’t change the thing that’s actually the biggest issue for people — which is the compression of the machine. The compression causes pain and that pain is uncomfortable for people, so people don’t get mammograms on a regular basis. What we did was try to understand the whole process. What are the other pain points?

When we talked to people, we learned all sorts of interesting things. For instance, when the 12-month time-frame comes around, you start to have a dialogue with yourself about whether you want to go find out [if you have breast cancer]. People might have a family history of breast cancer, so it can be a scary appointment to make. The gown that you wear is immodest and uncomfortable. One woman told us, “I already feel as though I’ve been diagnosed with something when I put that gown on. It’s what sick people wear.” People told us about the temperature of the exam room and said it was freezing cold. [They mentioned] the time it takes from getting the test to getting the result — that waiting period, where your mind has the opportunity to just run rampant and scare you.

That stuff is not what GE does. They just make the machines and sell them to the hospital. But the patient experience is so influenced by all of these other things.

We came back to GE and asked what would happen if they started offering services in addition to product. What if you redesigned the entire patient experience and made it a GE process that was more empathic and patient-first? What is the appointment-making process was different, the waiting time for your results was shorter, you had a different type of gown on and the temperature of the exam room was better?

We built that, prototyped it and found that not only did it decrease the complaints of pain in patients by 50 percent, it also increased the effectiveness of the test by 12 percent. This was all grounded in patient empathy– understanding what this process was like for people and how to make it better. It not only helped their business but it helped their test.

Also read: Finding the Right Level of Empathy

Workforce: What else have you learned about empathy’s role in the workplace in the process of writing this book and sharing these ideas with others?

Ventura: People are unsure how [empathy] can be measured and are worried that it’s too much work. I’ll say that it can be measured in a way that you wouldn’t think.

Quantitatively measuring the empathy of a situation or a person is impractical in a business context. But what you can do is measure the effect of empathy on things like recruitment and retention of top talent, the emergence of high performing teams, how well teams work together [and] overall workplace satisfaction.

The thing about it being hard is — not to sugarcoat it — it is hard. It will require more work than what you normally do. It might mean you need to have that hard conversation with someone, or that a meeting might need to run 15 minutes longer because someone’s saying something important and we need to hear it. It might mean that someone tells you something you don’t wanna’ hear about yourself but you have to if you want to be a better leader. It might mean that our recruiting team needs to stop fishing for talent in the same three ponds because you’re going to continue to get the same three types of people working there.

To do all this, it takes more time, more work and more relationship building. Some people don’t want to do that hard work. So what we often come around to with organizations is having to say: this is going to require more work and you’re not gonna see the effects immediately. It’s gonna take a few months.

But if you do it then it’s going to become more second nature. It’ll become part of your practice and eventually, it will speed up and become more efficient and better. But you’re going to have to make the up-front investment.

Workforce: Do you see these ideas as particularly relevant to recent movements about equity, inclusivity and respect in the workplace?

Ventura: Absolutely. I think that the rise of things like #BlackLivesMatter, the #MeToo movement and other cultural touchstones that we’ve seen in the 18 months has brought that conversation to corporate America, and now there’s an increased awareness for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts inside those companies. One of the key ingredients, in my opinion, is empathy.

Workforce: One thing I noticed that you mentioned in your book was the idea of accelerating trust. People are more likely to stay in a workplace and be more successful at a workplace in which they feel trusted by their employers and vice versa. Typically we think of trust as something that can take a long time to create. How do you see ways to accelerate trust building in ways that are still authentic and organic?

Ventura: Conversation is one of the first ways to do it. When we start working with someone new — be that internally as a new hire or externally as a new client — we often ask what the barriers are that are going to stand in the way of us trusting one another fully and quickly.

Some people might say that they’ve always had bad bosses, and that they feel whenever they’ve been vocal about how they feel it’s going in their file and all of a sudden they’re a “complainer.” If we know that on day one, we can make you feel safer about giving us that feedback because we want it. It’s not about going through your file or creating some new perception of who you are, but when you tell us something and it’s feedback that we can use to improve the way we run our business, we want to give you credit for that, thank you and make sure you feel supported and tell us more. It’s about helping unpack concern.

It’s also true for the client side. Often, clients will hire companies to come in for a specific problem that they want to solve. They’ll keep that problem in a bubble and don’t show the consultant or that external party all the factors that have influenced that problem that are there, they just show them the problem. With this type of work, if we want to be faster and better, we have to see all of the tentacles of an organization and how they influence things.

Also in Workforce Q&As: 

Jeffrey Pfeffer Addresses Dying for a Paycheck — Literally

Gary Pisano on How Managerial Leadership Drives Innovation

Francesca Mathewes is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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