Empathy, leadership and the tie to engagement

CEOs, talent officers, motivational strategists, leadership thinkers, futurists and more are speaking at #Elevate2016, the largest virtual HR conference in the world. The digital conference is being held this Thursday, November 10, 2016.

Speakers include Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte; Keith Ferrazzi, Founder and CEO, Ferrazzi Greenlight & Yoi, #1 NY Times bestselling author of Never Eat Alone; Patty McCord, Former Chief Talent Officer, Netflix; Stephen M. R. Covey, bestselling author of Speed of Trust; and Chris Powell, CEO of Talmetrix.

Dozens of other employee development, HR, workplace innovators, and leadership experts will be speaking at the conference, including Shawn Vanderhoven, CEO of UP, an innovation company based in Silicon Valley. UP uses empathic and creative thinking to fuel breakthroughs in organizations.

Vanderhoven has worked with companies and executives from Adobe, Capital One, Cisco, Deloitte, Oracle, Siemens, LinkedIn, Wells Fargo, and Yahoo, and will be sharing some of his insights from his recent work during his #Elevate2016 speech. We sat down with Vanderhoven to talk about what he’s learned looking back at 2016, including the power of empathy for talent-focused organizations.

Build Engaged Cultures with Trust & Innovation

Vanderhoven says one of the biggest takeaways this past year has been from research his team conducted on workplace dynamics. One of their findings was that very few workers believed their current job was going to have transformative effects on their career.

Around 10 percent of workers believed they were in a transformative position, says Vanderhoven. When interviewing the leaders within these organizations, leaders also reported that they believed only 25 percent of those reporting to them were in transformative roles.

“You have two dynamics happening here,” explains Vanderhoven. “A lot of people don’t feel like their current job is helping them transform their career, and that it’s not really creating the key that they need to open that next door. And then a lot of leaders don’t believe that their people are in transformative roles for the company. There’s definitely a lack of the right kind of transformational engagement today in the workforce,” he adds.

Vanderhoven says that another critical component for talent-focused organizations that he’s been focusing on in 2016 is how empathy relates to these workforces—including how it impacts trust, engagement, and innovation, as well as other business outcomes.

“This has been the really fun part of the research that we’ve come to in the last year,” he says. “And it’s that empathy usually scores last among leaders. This is kind of a tragedy because what we’ve learned in this research is that empathy actually unlocks the greatness that leaders need to be able to create these mutually transformative agreements.” These are the relationships where leaders are able to listen and ask questions—because they simply are interested, they care, and they have a genuine desire to develop those they are leading.

“There is that desire for [the manager] to try to lower that water line around that iceberg to understand [the employee] better. And when we empathize with somebody else and we’re curious and we utilize listening and questioning, we can expose what people really want, and what people need. We can use that information to come back and design mutually transformative agreements and role creation, where I know that you are in a position that is transformative for your career—and you are also working on transformational projects and products for the company.”

“Empathy Enables Greatness”

“This has been a huge discovery that I’ve had working on different leadership frameworks—and I didn’t think it would come to empathy,” says Vanderhoven.

“When we can teach leaders how to piggy-back on their interest of people, and interest in who they are leading, to develop more emphatic thinking, and the skills that help them lower the water line around that iceberg, then they are able to innovate in a way where they can create mutually transformational agreements within their companies. That is when incredible innovation and disruption ensues,” he adds.

“Empathy enables greatness,” says Vanderhoven, citing how many of the greatest leaders are those who’ve mastered listening in order to solve problem with others. “[They] just an incredible deep desire to try to understand before prescribing,” he says. 

Kickstart Your Empathic Thinking

“We hear that all the time that we have two ears and one mouth, but it’s more than that. It is: am I equally interested in you? Then what can I do to understand what your needs are, and what your wants are? It’s about being able to design a relationship where you can then also understand what my needs and wants are as a leader representing the organization.”

It’s also about how to design the right roles for talent to create mutually transformative agreements—where engagement will follow as a result. “We’ve cut through all that to figure out what is going on inside of you, what do you really want, where do you want to go with this, what’s next for you, and what are your dreams.”

Vanderhoven explains that leaders that are empathic thinkers will:

  1. Think in terms of “let’s find a better way, contrast is strength, and context is king.” On the other hand, binary way of thinking would be focus on “right versus wrong or content is king,” says Shawn.
  2. Act in ways that “build bridges, helps to find ways to improve, and listens emphatically.” On the other hand, binary ways of doing would include passing judgment, justifying past actions and building walls.
  3. “Create killer engagement, innovation collaboration, and breakthrough synthesis.” Binary thinkers, in contrast, tend to create rampant apathy, conflict and weak compromise, says Shawn.

“Most of us have two jobs, our primary job—what’s in our job description—and our second job—managing up and politics, etc. When people are in a mutually transformative relationship, what we find is that they spend next to no time wasting energy on their second job—because they’re already working in confidence on the thing that really matters to them and the company.”

Looking to 2017, Vanderhoven believes that cultivating empathy is going to be a focus for organizations looking to harness trust, and improve processes including innovation. “What I think we want to see more of, and that we will see more of, is that organizations will focus on developing empathic leadership abilities so they can engage their people through transformative relationships.”

Uplift, Elevate & Inspire Your Work

Register for Elevate 2016 to hear Vanderhoven share how you can solve engagement challenges through mutually transformative agreements and relationships. Vanderhoven will share strategies and tactics on how to elevate your work through this approach. Find out more about how you can hear from more than 50 business executive and HR leaders on the latest workplace trends.

How Talent-Focused Organizations Fuel a Culture of High Performance

Talent-focused organizations achieve better business outcomes through fueling a culture of high performance. And that’s why all leaders—not just HR leaders—should integrate a continuous employee feedback program into their business processes. Download our infographic below to see the proven, 7-step process for planning and executing an employee engagement program.

road map to employee engagement

About Shawn Vanderhoven

Shawn is the CEO of UP. where he works with senior executives and business leaders to transform and renovate conflicts and problems into breakthrough innovation, trust, and profit. He speaks on converting conflict into revenue and how to build an engaging culture centered in trust and innovation. Find out more here.

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