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Empathy: A 21st century business priority

14 January 2021

What is empathy and why is it one of the super-powers that business leaders need to work on? This article takes a deeper look at why empathy has become a top business priority and how it is an essential element of design thinking.

“Most people think that empathy is something you have only with friends and family, but in reality, it is also a priority in business”  Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft

What is empathy and why is it one of the super-powers that business leaders need to work on? Does it have a special resonance for lawyers who are also business leaders? Empathy is often a skill which we focus on in the pastoral aspects of our roles as business leaders. It’s likely a skill that has really come to fore over the last year as we and colleagues struggle with new ways of working and dealing with competing challenges such as home-schooling children. The particular demands of the pandemic (in which kids photobombing a video call is the lightest relief) have ranged from loneliness; physical illness; mental illness; time constraints and financial worries to name a few.

For many general counsels I know, it’s brought a real resonance to the seemingly innocuous question, “How are you?”. A question that, for many years, for both those asking and being asked was too often a rhetorical question.

However, it’s vital that we do not lose sight of the way in which empathy connects directly to our business and legal imperatives. Understanding our clients and customers is fundamental to designing more effective solutions but also to coming up with more creative ideas and innovative answers. Empathy is the first stage in design thinking. It’s fundamental that this stage isn’t skipped, or the danger is ending up with a solution that works for the solution giver but not for the end user. We all have lived through examples of this: legal advice which is purely a legal opinion with no nuance as to your organisation’s own reality; using a piece of technology where the UX has not been considered; instructions which raise more questions than solutions to how we assemble the new product. The list could be endless…

In a long-term example of empathy in innovation, product designer Patricia Moore explored hundreds of US cities in the persona of an 85-year-old woman. Her disguise hampered her ability to see, hear and move, to mimic the real experience of an older person. These experiences led her to come up with the concept of Universal Design, which revolutionised the product design industry, making it more accessible. Similarly, central to Christian Christensen et Al’s theory of ‘Jobs to be Done’ is true empathy with those that the innovation is being created for. The best innovations need to have an emotional connection. Empathy is at the heart of innovation.

Empathy is a skill that lawyers may have a natural affinity for: being able to see both sides of an argument and being able to see more than one point of view. What differentiates empathy though, is adding in the aspect of caring and being invested in a good outcome. Maaike de Bie, General Counsel at EasyJet comments, “Good dialogue brings good outcomes". Having a more client centric focus is a natural staging post on the way to a more fully developed use of empathy in business.

Kenny Robertson, Head of Legal for Outsourcing, Technology and IP at NatWest sees this as fundamental to the role of the lawyer in the 21st century, whether in-house or external:

“Having a curious mindset and wanting to understand the client’s focus, to understand its problems, is an excellent means to develop empathy…the premium is on curiosity – on trying to understand what the client’s drivers are, what the pain points are, putting yourself in their shoes...I don’t think you’ll ever go too far wrong as a lawyer if you try to understand that".

Author: Dr Catherine McGregor

Our Brave New Law series kicks off 2021 exploring the topic of empathy. Please register your details if you'd like to join these discussions and seminars alongside GC's from a range of sectors. 


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