Empathy is a critical characteristic for anybody who wants to run a business. Without it, you are relying on data alone, which means you miss part of the picture, according to Ruby McGregor-Smith, chief executive of Mitie, the outsourcing company. “If you do not know how people feel, how your clients feel, how do you know how your company is doing?” she said.
Figures are important but they must not be the only consideration, said McGregor-Smith. Take an acquisition, for example. Anybody considering buying a company will get a lot of information and will analyse the financial position, but it is only when you meet the management team that you will see what drives the business: “All the data in the world won’t give you the people piece.”
Empathy and emotion are just as important when leading a team day to day, said McGregor-Smith. “Whatever your company or your product, ultimately you have a group of people to manage. You need to understand and empathise with them as individuals. If you can’t, you can’t be a good leader. If you can’t take them through the tough times and understand how they feel then as well as in the good times, you can’t motivate them.” Everybody has empathy as part of their make-up, she said, but we don’t all know how to express it or use it. Some people use it in their personal life but do not see the need at work.”
Learning how to show a degree of vulnerability can be a powerful tool, she said. “People feel inspired by vulnerability as well as success — seeing that people are just normal, that nobody is perfect.”
A willingness to show vulnerability can also be a useful way to uncover risks. Asking questions and admitting that you do not understand can get through group think and lead to deeper conversations. “If everyone on your team says ‘it all sounds great’ but you are worried, then say so. You need more voices of conscience in organisations, and I am not convinced we do that very well,” said McGregor-Smith.