August 27, 2021 / Esther Choy

Is your leadership prepared to leverage the opportunities of a diverse workplace? Empathy and storytelling will help.

Do an experiment with me: take a piece of chalk and go to your driveway or the sidewalk. Write a big lower-case “n” on the ground. Then call out someone in your family and have them stand over the top of the “n.” Ask them what letter they see. 

Point of view unmistakably shapes your interpretation of events. Consider this wonderful classic ad from The Guardian. What does it illustrate? We all see pieces of the whole. The main character of the ad appears first as victim, then as villain, and then as hero, depending on the point of view. We don’t know our view is limited until someone with a different perspective illuminates more for us.

This month, the complete findings of the 2020 US Census peppered the headlines, especially highlights about the increasing racial diversity of our country. According to the New York Times, “Diversity is rising in 19 out of every 20 counties.” Americans identifying as multiracial grew from about 9 million to 33.8 million between 2010 and 2020. Business Insider noted that “America is becoming a more diverse country and will eventually be a majority-minority one.” That “minority” designation represents many different self-reported racial categories of both native-born and foreign-born Americans. We are a diverse society—a collective of many different cultures, histories, and stories. 

This diversity can cause fear and friction when there is a lack of understanding and empathy. This is true in personal and social settings, but also in the workplace, where collaboration, innovation, and even daily job performance are influenced by team dynamic and morale. Poor communication, suspicion, and resentment escalate in the absence of empathy, while its presence promotes productivity, creativity, and well-informed decisions.

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Some managers and team leaders are unsure where to start to build empathy at their organization. The answer is quite simple, because the best catalyst for empathy is personal stories. When we can understand one another’s stories and perspectives, it erases fear and lets us pool together our abundant, varied resources instead. The bedrock of storytelling is point of view and being able to move fluently from one point of view to another. This skill separates the amateur storyteller from the master. 

Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own.” Here are three ways to cultivate empathy through embodying other points of view and reaping the benefits of diverse experiences in your workplace. 

1. Assume the best of others.

In a short video about the strategic importance of empathy, Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer and executive coach Ed Batista explains that workplace conflict is often about incorrect assumptions, not about ill will. Everyone has reasons for their words, behavior, and expectations. “We make a whole host of assumptions which often justify our own perspective and are typically very unempathetic. What we fail to do habitually is stop and ask ourselves: ‘What is that person’s reasoning?’”

New coworkers, bosses, and employees are coming from somewhere with their different habits, rhythms, and behaviors. The first step to cultivating empathy is to assume there are reasons behind their actions that have nothing to do with inconveniencing or disrespecting you. Ask yourself, “Do I really know the story here? From more than one perspective?” If the answer is “No,” assume the best, and start looking for the opportunity to get the story. Which brings us to our next point…

2. Ask crazy good questions.

Not everyone enjoys small talk, because  it’s largely unproductive for getting to know who someone really is. Empathy comes from learning someone’s stories—the experiences that have shaped their perspectives, attitudes, and behaviors.

To open a path for story, make space and ask what I call crazy good questions—questions that delve deeper. For example, after presenting a new idea to your team, ask, “Does anyone have prior experience with a similar project?” To the person or people that respond that they have, ask “What was your takeaway from using a strategy like the one we just talked about?” Or, “What would you recommend we avoid in our approach, and why?” This invites other points of view (leveraging the benefits of experiential diversity) with the full stories behind them (humanizing and increasing understanding of the person).

Here is a longer list of crazy good questions you can use in various settings. 

This is where it’s important to practice our next point…

Tell the right story for any business situation - we'll give you the tools.

3. Listen aggressively.

My former boss and retired Northwestern University communications professor Paul Arnston used to say, “For every one part talking, do three parts listening.” In other words, listen three times more than you speak.

Fully attentive, aggressive listening can be hard. We have so many things on our minds at any given moment—to-do lists, background distractions—that we can float off while others are talking to us, even if we initiated the conversation. Distraction is not conducive to empathy. 

It also makes our conversations unproductive, as Melissa Daimler noted in her article about listening: “ It was only when [my boss’s] laptop was closed and her schedule wasn’t jammed with meetings that I got something out of our meetings. We connected, I learned, and we both felt like we accomplished something out of the conversation.”

Aggressive listening requires listening with our whole body, except our mouth. (In my book, I give strategies for what to do when you have trouble concentrating while listening, like imagining the speaker’s story as a movie, and feeling the emotions they are expressing.)  

Diverse workplaces offer enormous prospects for learning and innovation, and they’re proven to bring increased profitability. If the Census results can teach us anything, it’s that our workplaces will be increasingly made up of individuals from different backgrounds, and this is an exciting opportunity for those prepared with an empathetic imagination. If you want to expand your skill set to meet this opportunity, we can help

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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"This is an amazing and insightful post! I hadn’t thought of that so you broadened my perspective. I always appreciate your insight!" - Dan B.

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