By Brianna Valleskey
My primary takeaway from “Avengers: Infinity War” had nothing to do with the Avengers.
Don’t get me wrong: The movie, itself, was great. But afterward, I was most intrigued with the Guardians of the Galaxy. One Guardian in particular--
Yep, the soft-spoken empath with antennas who joined the Guardians in the sequel.
Mantis can sense and manipulate the emotions of other people (although her character in the comics is much more robust), and those abilities play major roles in both “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” and “Infinity War.” One of the most effective uses of her powers are to make someone feel relaxed enough to soothe them into a deep sleep.
(Spoilers ahead. But seriously go see these movies.)
At the end of “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” the team attempts to stop Ego (a “god-like” living planet and Quill’s biological father) from planting seedlings across the universe to consume planets and turn them into extension of himself. No bueno. But they need Mantis to put Ego to sleep so they can destroy the cosmic brain at the core of his planet. I mentioned that he’s a planet, right? But she does it, like a total badass.
And that’s not all. Infinity War features Mantis playing an integral role in a plan to stop Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones and using them to exterminate half of all life in the universe. He keeps them in a gauntlet on his left hand to harness their power. But before he’s able to find them all, some of the Avengers confront him on his home world.
Thanos is ridiculously powerful (and even more so with the Infinity Stones). So it takes a combination of Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Spiderman, Quill and Drax to distract and restrain him. The secret weapon to their strategy is—you guessed it—Mantis. She lulls him into a stupor while Iron Man and Spiderman attempt to pull the glove containing the Infinity Stones off of his hand. And they almost succeed! That is, until Quill finds out that Thanos killed Gamora, starts attacking him and basically ruins the whole plan.
Anyway, the point is that a character trait that might typically be perceived as “feminine” or even “weak” actually turns out to be incredibly powerful and useful when it comes to saving the galaxy. After seeing that movie, I developed a hypothesis that empathy might also actually be incredibly powerful and useful when it comes to running a successful business.
So I did a little research.
Why Empathy is an Underutilized Superpower in Business
In a study of 1,850 of CEOs, HR professionals and employees, Businessolver found that eight in ten agree that an empathetic workplace has a positive impact on business performance. What’s more? A whopping 87% of CEOs believe that a company’s financial performance is tied to empathy in the workplace. Nine out of ten employees, however, reported that they felt empathy remains undervalued.
So should we value empathy more at work? Let’s take a look at some its effects:
Empathy fosters an engaged workforce.
We’ve all heard that Gallup statistic that says only 32% of employees are actively engaged at work. It’s staggering, but not as much as the fact that actively disengaged employees cost the United States $450-550 billion each year. The organizational benefits of employee engagement are measurable: Businesses with the highest levels of employee engagement experience 22% more profitability, 21% more productivity and 10% better customer ratings.
Here’s where empathy comes in: When working for an empathetic employer, nine out of 10 employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathized with their needs, and eight in 10 are willing to work longer hours. Those in demanding industries like tech, healthcare and financial services will even trade pay and work hours for an employer they perceive as empathetic. So empathetic leadership actually makes employees more motivated to work for that organization, which could offer an effective direct antidote to active disengagement.
Empathy increases job performance.
Although many theories identify empathy as an important part of leadership, the Center for Creative Leadership analyzed data about 6,731 managers from 38 countries to find out. Their findings were consistent across the sample: empathy is positively related to job performance.
Managers who show more empathy (not just have empathy, but act on it) toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses. By their bosses! Not by the reports directly receiving the empathy, but by the person the manager reports to. The researchers also speculate that empathetic leaders effectively build and maintain relationships—which they cite as a vital part of high-performing businesses worldwide.
Empathy stimulates innovation.
While empathy is often regarded as a soft skill (and not particularly pertinent in the world of business), Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes it’s a wellspring for innovation (as well as a necessity for CEOs). Innovation, he explains, comes from “one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.” And that’s exactly what empathy supplies.
“Most people think empathy is just something you reserve for your life and your family and your friends, but the reality is that it’s an existential priority of a business,” Nadella said in a Bloomberg interview last year.
He asserts that CEOs should be both empathetic and confident (but also willing to learn). Given that Microsoft’s stock price has more than doubled since he took over the company in 2014, I think he might be on to something here.
So, how do we cultivate more empathy at work?
More than half of employees struggle to demonstrate empathy (however, eight in 10 of them are open to empathy skills training). Businessolver offers a template for your workplace called the “Empathy Manifesto,” but here are a few tactical tips the report also provides …
1. Acknowledge individual needs: According to the study, employees and CEOs agree that the top empathetic behaviors are understanding and/or respecting the need for time off and for flexible working hours.
2. Advocate for your employees: Employees also cited more traditional benefits (like insurance, retirement contributions and paid parental leave) as empathetic, and said that lowering costs was the most empathetic practice related to benefits.
3. Have face-to-face conversations: Nine in 10 of the study’s respondents rated face-to-face conversations and team meetings as the most empathetic way to communicate. Men cited recognition for accomplishments as empathetic, while women emphasized collaboration and one-on-one conversations.
(Notice that all of those activities focused more on supporting individuals, rather than initiating team-building activities, which tends to be a popular approach.)
One final aspect I would anecdotally add is to have empathy for your customers. Talk to them. Understand who they are, what they care about, what keeps them up at night, and how your product or service makes their lives better.
But it all starts from within. Foster empathy internally, and you’ll be better at empathizing externally with the people you're in business to serve.
Fearless Thoughts are my insights on marketing, entrepreneurship, startups, business growth, creativity and whatever else comes to mind on any given day. Writing is how I make sense of the world.