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Imagining another’s experience unlocks new ideas, connections.

My team has been thinking deeply about empathy lately as we build a new program for a client to develop their leaders’ capabilities in this area. 

At the same time, my attention keeps getting pulled toward innovation because it’s become so apparent that survival in our business climate of accelerated change demands new solutions to problems. (Check out my latest blog post on nurturing an open, inventive culture.) 

Well, it took me a while to connect the dots, but I recently had a lightbulb moment where the two ideas converged, and I began to see an inherent relationship between empathy and innovation. 

The more I thought about it, the more I saw threads linking them. And I think they are essential priorities for exceptional leadership. 

High-quality attention

Both innovation and empathy rely on an unusual quality of attention, a degree of focus you’re willing to give to a customer, colleague or problem. I’d argue that both innovation and empathy require you to get out of your self and direct your attention externally rather than internally, as most of us tend to do much of the time. 

Innovation and empathy both require us to sit with a problem or person and give them our deep attention. That’s an increasingly rare and valuable gift in today's distraction culture. 

Active imagination

This quality of deep attention is paired with a certain imaginative capacity: in both innovation and empathy, it’s necessary to imagine what is not, or at least what we ourselves are not directly experiencing. (Even when we’re able to empathize with another’s situation because it’s similar to something we’ve also felt or lived, we can’t really know how it feels to be them). 

That ability or at least willingness to try to understand somebody else's emotions or perspective, to vicariously experience their life, is an act of imagination. 

And so is conceiving of a new solution or approach to an old or emerging problem – the very definition of innovation. 


Comfort with discomfort 

What do trying new things, advancing potentially wacky ideas, active listening, and being present with another human being have in common? 

They can all feel a little … awkward. 

That’s because they challenge the status quo, where we all know what to expect, and go beyond the superficiality of most work relationships. Innovation and empathy can feel risky because, well, they are! They require vulnerability. 

It’s scary to open up like that. 

But let’s consider what the opposite of empathy and innovation looks like. And here, too, I see a lot of common ground. Mostly, it’s a closed, potentially even defensive stance. 

My mental image of the non-empathetic/un-innovative leader is a nay-sayer with tightly crossed arms and a look on their face that says, “Try me.” 

It’s the office conversation killer. It’s the boss who won’t listen or who’s dismissive of your concerns. It’s the colleague who says, “Oh, there's no reason for you to be upset about that.” It’s the teammate who scoffs at your suggestions and the team meetings where ideas are not really welcome. 

These kinds of shut-’er-down responses will kill creativity, trust and connection. 

I’ll bet dollars to donuts that a more empathetic organization is also likely to be a more innovative one, because it’s the same foundational elements that nurture both. 

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