A few days ago I read an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review, - Empathy Is Still Lacking in the Leaders Who Need It Most, - by Ernest Wilson, Dean of the Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). The article is based on the Third Space, a research project to better understand the key competencies companies are looking for, and whether these talent requirements are being adequately addressed by universities.
The study conducted face-to-face, in-depth conversations with dozens of senior executives across companies in a broad range of industries and consulted with a number of other academic institutions. It gathered additional data through online surveys and partnered with Korn Ferry, - the world’s largest executive search firm, - which gave them access to data on almost 1,900 executives with a broad range of professional backgrounds.
Their initial findings were published in a working paper, The one-trillion dollar global talent gap: What it is and what we can do about it. Their research discovered that talent is the greatest competitive challenge companies face. More specifically, beyond the traditional skills typically provided by engineering and business schools, companies need a new kind of talent that is currently undersupplied in the workforce.
Future leaders must be strong in quantitative, technical and business skills. But these must be complemented with a unique set of attitudes, perspectives, experiences and other so called softer skills. Good leaders need to be good strategic thinkers and must have strong social and communications skills. Finding and retaining talented individuals with these capabilities is a challenge regardless of geography or industry.
- Adaptability: Mental agility and resilience in ambiguous situations; flexibility when dealing with change; thinking beyond the black-and-white to the gray areas; asking unexpected questions that might lead to better solutions.
- Cultural competence: Capacity to think, act and move across multiple functions, silos and global cultures.
- 360-degree thinking: Holistic thinking; capable of seeing the big picture and recognizing patterns that might lead to new and better solutions.
- Intellectual curiosity: Constantly learning and growing; willing to risk and experiment in order to come up with creative new solutions to problems.
- Empathy: Strong emotional intelligence; effective listening and collaboration skills; superior communication skills; being inclusive and considering the views of others across a variety of disciplines, cultures and perspectives.
“These so-called soft attributes constitute a distinctive way of seeing the world,” notes Dean Wilson in the HBR paper. “Taken together, they create a kind of Third Space that differs sharply from the other two perspectives that have long dominated business thinking: the engineering and traditional MBA perspectives.”
Empathy turned to be the most important of the five attributes. “Frankly, when empathy kept coming up in our research, I was surprised. All of the people we interviewed were serious business executives. Empathy was not the first virtue I associated with the rough and tumble of today’s highly competitive business world. I expected to hear about boldness, perseverance, and toughness.”
Wikipedia defines empathy as “the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.” Empathy is the feeling that enables those who posses it to understand the unique perspective of the people they interact with.
In today’s business world, empathy is a particularly important skill, whether trying to convince colleagues to embrace a major new idea, attempting to get users to embrace a new product, or attracting and retaining clients. Empathy enables employees to observe the behavior of people and better understand their wants and needs, especially the kind of emotional behavior that may not lend itself to quantitative analysis.
Why was empathy the most important of the five attributes? Dean Wilson offers several possible explanations.
First is the changing nature of “the monolithic group formerly known as the audience.” The once passive customers, compliant patients or couch potatoes are now relics of a pre-digital past when communication between institution and individual went mostly one-way. In our digital world, communication goes both ways. Technology has empowered individuals, giving them access to huge amounts of information only a few clicks away. Social media platforms enable those empowered individuals to easily share with the world what they think of your new product or service. Power has been shifting from institutions to individuals. “You need empathy to know who those audiences are and what they want.”
This is particularly important for companies doing business in diverse markets around the world. Treating them all the same will just not work. “You must be sincerely interested in understanding other cultural preferences and choices.”
Empathy also plays a major role in today’s workplace. Rigid top-down hierarchies have given way to teamwork and collaboration, often involving employees from across the company as well as customers and business partners.
MIT professor Tom Malone has conducted research to see if groups, like individuals, exhibit characteristic levels of intelligence which can be measured and used to predict the group’s performance across a wide variety of tasks. And if so, can one find a statistically significant measure of the group’s collective intelligence, analogous to an individual’s intelligence quotient (IQ).
His studies uncovered that a few group attributes significantly correlated with a collective IQ. Foremost among them was the average social sensitivity of group members as measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test originally developed at the Autism Research Center in the University of Cambridge. This is a measure of social perceptiveness, that is, the ability of group members to read each other’s emotions. “In [today’s] companies, relationships and persuasion have become essential for success. And to persuade effectively you must be able to empathize.”
The final reason for empathy’s importance, notes Wilson, is the growing presence of millennials in the workforce, - that is, those born between 1980-2000. Some consider them self-absorbed narcissists who can barely look up from their smartphones, while others view them as seeking meaningful work in socially responsible companies that reflect their values. “But whether narcissistic or noble, they are 80 million strong and now dominate the workplace. Leading and managing them requires understanding them individually - the kind of genuine understanding provided not by broad-brush depictions but by empathy.”
While empathy is widely seen as desirable across industries and geographies, it’s an attribute that’s often missing, especially in the higher levels of management. “According to an unpublished survey of our graduates over the past 10 years who now occupy professional positions, empathy is most lacking among middle managers and senior executives: the very people who need it most because their actions affect such large numbers of people.”
How are universities responding to these evolving talent requirements? It’s been known for a while that companies require skills beyond what engineering and MBA programs are currently teaching. These gaps are being addressed, - to a greater or lesser extent, - in engineering departments and business schools. But the situation is somewhat different in the more liberal-arts-oriented disciplines, because this softer leg of Third Space Thinking is newer, being particularly important in our emerging digital economy, as well as being an amalgam of different academic traditions and cultures, including humanities, social sciences and communications.
Given the importance of strategic communications and social skills in Third Space Thinking, Dean Wilson is addressing these challenges by broadening the practice of his own discipline, communications, and in particular, the curriculum of USC’s Annenberg School. This will take time. While communications is attuned to the changing nature of audiences and culture, the heterogeneity of the discipline means that there are no widely accepted core capabilities. In addition, given that much of communications has come out of the humanities, there is no long tradition of working closely with companies, as there is in engineering and business schools.
Lots must be done by both business and academia. Colleges and universities must figure how to create a steady supply of talented people with the proper combination of skills that companies require and are having trouble finding. And companies need to work hard to find, retain and promote these valuable workers, whose leadership skills are so essential in our services-centric, people-oriented economy.