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Managers take lessons in listening; auto designers strap on an ‘empathy belly’
By JOANN S. LUBLIN   Updated June 21, 2016 6:16 p.m. ET

BRIDGEVILLE, Pa.—Until recently, Aaron Gibson wouldn’t have called himself an empathetic boss. He considered himself a “no-nonsense” leader with high standards. But some employees cited his blunt and brusque manner when they quit the three local YMCAs he runs.

Mr. Gibson changed his style after a recent leadership workshop at a consultancy here, where he and other leaders got a crash course about leading with empathy. The YMCA regional executive director realized he didn’t understand his staffers’ needs. “You never know what someone is feeling unless you ask,” he says.

Corporate empathy may sound like an oxymoron, but more businesses are emphasizing the trait in developing managers and products. Cisco Systems Inc., Breakthru Beverage Group and Ford Motor Co., have invested in empathy training to improve management, retain employees, or guide design decisions.

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Individuals who master listening and responding to others are the most successful leaders, and this skill outranks all others, concluded a study released this year by human-resources consultancy Development Dimensions International. The finding reflects assessments of more than 15,000 leaders in 18 countries. A 2011 study of 6,731 managers from 38 countries by the Center for Creative Leadership also uncovered strong performance by empathetic bosses, saying they “effectively build and maintain relationships.”

About 20% of U.S. employers offer empathy training as part of management development, up significantly from a decade ago, estimates Richard S. Wellins, a DDI senior vice president. He expects that percentage will double in 10 years.

EMPATHY EXERCISES

Tips for practicing empathy at work:

Pay careful attention to colleagues’ emotions, not just their words
Use phrases like “I hear that you’re feeling angry,” to recognize a person’s emotions without being judgmental
Be authentic and sincere even when you disagree with someone’s feelings
Use phrases that both acknowledge emotions and still hold employees accountable
Source: Development Dimensions International

Contemporary workers “want a sense of connection,” which empathetic managers offer, says Adam Waytz, an empathy researcher and associate professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. Yet, few companies scientifically measure outcomes from this training, he adds.

At least one measure suggests that empathy boosts corporate results, too. The top 10 businesses among 160 in a 2015 Global Empathy Index generated 50% more net income per employee than the bottom 10. The index analyzed such factors as how well those companies treat workers and communicate with customers.
The Empathy Business—the consultancy that produces the index—also advises businesses such as Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd., a British sports car maker eager to attract more female buyers. Treating customers empathetically “differentiates our business,’’ says Chief Executive Andrew Palmer.
Encouraged by Empathy Business, Aston Martin created an all-female advisory board to advise on design of the DBX, a spacious new model. This international customer board can veto engineering decisions and will eventually weigh in on marketing.

Ford also incorporates empathy into vehicle design. Newly hired engineering graduates must don an “empathy belly” shortly after they join design teams. The weighted garment makes a wearer feel like an expectant mother—including extra pounds, back pain and bladder pressure. Engineers personally experience challenges facing pregnant drivers, who need “a little more room to get in and out of the car,” says Katie Allanson, a Ford ergonomics specialist.

After 30 minutes of simulated pregnancy, male colleagues often ask Ms. Allanson when they can take off the belly. (“Three more months to go,” she jokes.) The practice has influenced ergonomic features in certain models, such as easier automatic adjustments of the driver seat.

DDI and several rivals strongly emphasize empathy during broader leadership training for clients. Many bosses lack the skill, its studies show.

Click here for the full article: http://www.wsj.com/articles/companies-try-a-new-strategy-empathy-1466501403

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