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Michael Ventura, CEO

Rethinking Our Thinking With Empathy

By Francesca Mathewes
Empathy is becoming a vital skill in the workplace, says Michael Ventura, CEO and founder of empathic design firm Sub Rosa. In his book, “Applied Empathy,” Ventura unpacks what a career grounded in human experiences and creativity has taught him about empathy and offers this knowledge to new entrepreneurs and executives.

Workforce: How do you define empathy? What does empathy mean to you?

Michael Ventura: Empathy overall has three subsets. Two out of three types of empathy [effective empathy and somatic empathy] are, in the business and leadership capacity, actually more troublesome than helpful. The third iteration is cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy is about training the muscle of perspective-taking. That’s about learning how to stand in the shoes of someone else and see the world from their perspective. That deep understanding yields greater insight about this person and what they care about. Our work is grounded in the premise of cognitive empathy. We call it applied empathy, because empathy unto itself is passive.

Workforce: How have your past experiences informed your interest in empathy?

Ventura: In creative businesses there’s often a tendency to shut the doors with a couple of smart people inside and say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?” And you sort of make stuff up and get high on your own supply. I realized at some point in our business that that is unproductive and often ineffective, because it is just stroking the egos of a couple of people sitting in the room.

When we started practicing empathy and thought “Hey, maybe we don’t know the right way to do this, let’s go talk to people, let’s get inside their heads, go inside their houses and see how they live”; when we were immersed and asking questions and made the investment of going deeper with people, that was when our work got better time and time again.

Workforce: What did you learn about empathy while writing your book?

Ventura: People are unsure how [empathy] can be measured and are worried that it’s too much work. I’ll say that it can be measured in a way that you wouldn’t think. Quantitatively measuring the empathy of a situation or a person is impractical in a business context. But what you can do is measure the effect of empathy on things like recruitment and retention of top talent, the emergence of high performing teams, how well teams work together [and] overall workplace satisfaction.

Workforce: Do you see these ideas as relevant to recent movements about equity, inclusivity and respect in the workplace?

Ventura: I think that the rise of things like #BlackLivesMatter, the #MeToo movement and other cultural touchstones has brought that conversation to corporate America, and now there’s an increased awareness for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts inside those companies. One of the key ingredients, in my opinion, is empathy.