“Strategy without empathy is a wasted idea.”
That’s a quote from Brian Garish, president of Banfield Pet Hospital, the leading provider of preventive veterinary care in the United States, with 1,000+ hospitals and 19,000+ associates in neighborhoods across the country.
Over the past several years, he has led Banfield through a lot of empathy-infused strategic decisions: adding mental health professionals and programs to combat mental health challenges and high rates of suicide among veterinarians; and offering debt relief programs to help veterinarians with high student debt burdens.
Those are strategies created by people who went out of their way to know what their associates were grappling with in their lives, and then address it.
It’s not hard to find examples of the opposite: strategies that seem to have been devised with only the bottom line in mind. Things like offering only the bare minimum in terms of family leave, neglecting benefits that help employees address mental health and wellbeing, being overly strict about where and how people can do their work, are just a few off the top of my head.
When I say they act with “only the bottom line in mind,” I don’t mean that those who make those decisions are deliberately ignoring the needs of employees. It’s more likely that they don’t see the needs. They don’t know what employees are struggling with. They haven’t made a point of digging around to find out.
Most leaders and organizations have plenty of processes for finding places to improve efficiency and cut costs. What we need is a process for achieving empathy. Empathy requires making a concerted effort to know and account for the realities and values of individuals.
- We have value: we want to be included.
- We are worthy: we want to be seen in our full humanity.
- We are unique: we want to be ourselves.
- We have experience and insight: we want to do more.
- We have ideas: we want to explore our possibility.
In a previous article I introduced five indicators as a starting point for identifying where we might be suppressing individuality so we can interrupt ourselves and pivot toward unleashing. See how these two lists relate to each other. We have to assess:
- Who we let in (we want to be included)
- How we see them (we want to be seen in our full humanity)
- Who we let them be (we want to be ourselves)
- What we let them do (we want to do more)
- How we let them do it (we want to explore our possibility)
These are the major components of individuality, and if we use them as a guide, they can help us create systems that invite people to be themselves. We need people to see and believe that it’s safe and beneficial to share who they truly are and what they’re grappling with in their lives.
We can engineer empathy into our strategic planning.
New findings from the 2020 Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Benefits Survey show that employers are expanding benefits that support remote work, caregiving and health—not surprising after our collective pandemic experience. Those particular needs became pretty obvious as we all adjusted to challenges ranging from the horrors of Covid-19 to the tedium of trying to be productive without access to all the in-office resources on which we suddenly realized we depend.
But we can’t achieve that kind of empathy if we’re not seeing each other. We need to create systems that will help make it more likely that leaders see what people are grappling with.
That’s easier said than done. You have to:
- Know your people. But that starts with…
- Giving people ways to share what they really need. But the success of that depends on…
- Helping people feel safe enough with you to be vulnerable to ask for what they really need.
That kind of culture starts at the top. On that note, back to Brian Garish and Banfield.
Garish was not the only one making decisions about the mental health and debt relief programs mentioned above. But he set a tone of listening that invited Banfield associates to share about their lives. As a result, those in leadership were able to identify needs and create strategies for meeting them.
In his first six months with Banfield, Garish visited 140 of the hospitals. He always made it clear that everyone at the hospital was invited to participate. In one of those gatherings—he calls them “huddles”—someone asked him: “What happened to our Fun-Scrub Friday?” Garish was still new at the time and didn’t know what that was, so he said: “You tell me what happened.”
“Well, it’s canceled.”
Garish kept asking questions. What was it? On Fridays, we could wear any scrubs we wanted. Why did you like that? It allowed us to express ourselves.
When Garish met with senior leaders later, he invited discussion about it: If our associates are engaged, work well together, feel valued and respected—does it matter what they wear? No. So they changed the policy.
Soon after, on another hospital visit in a different city, he told one of the associates: “We have a new policy. Wear whatever scrubs you want. Just keep them clean and professional.” That associate immediately started dancing with delight. Garish made a video and posted it to Instagram (with her permission, of course). This video got five times as many views as his videos usually garnered.
“Obviously, this story is not about my Instagram views,” Garish told me. “It’s about what that jump in views revealed to me. Our associates were delighted. They spoke up, we heard them, and we changed something as a result. Culture has always been my top priority. The strategic direction of the company has been the second priority, because strategy without empathy is a wasted idea.”
If we view this story through the lens of those indicators mentioned above:
- Who you let in: Garish made it clear that everyone at the hospital was invited to participate in those huddles.
- How you see them: He saw them as worthy of listening to, no matter their role.
- Who you let them be: By removing an unnecessary restriction, they unleashed people to be themselves and express themselves.
- What you let them do: Associates were trusted enough to decide for themselves what to wear.
- How you let them do it: In this case the “how” can apply to the idea-sharing: an open “huddle” gave people room and safe space to speak their minds and ask questions in the moment.
Whether the strategy you’re considering is about your uniform policy or involves where and how to invest in your employees—you’ll make the best decisions if you’ve created a system that supports a culture of empathy.
For full article visit Forbes.com
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