Why Every Business Needs a Culture of Empathy

By James W Quigley on December 5, 2014

It’s been an amazing year for GoCanvas. We now have over 45,000 subscribers in 65 countries and are pacing for our fourth straight year of well over triple digit revenue growth. I love the fact that our subscribers are embracing our similar belief that GoCanvas was not about replacing paper forms for a digital version but how together we can vastly improve business processes and how work gets done.

With all of this exciting news, I’m excited to share that we’ve recently raised a financing round of $9 million. This will enable us to continue our hyper growth and help even more businesses around the world revolutionize their work, while making strategic investments in our innovation.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast”- Peter Drucker

culture eats strategy for breakfast

Lynn Nguyen, our graphic designer, creating a chalk design of our favorite quote!

The Importance of Business Culture

As exciting as our growth is, I want to talk about the importance of company culture and empathy in a company’s growth. Why? Culture is a big part of why we’ve been able to achieve the growth we have and it’s a huge focus of ours as we continue our journey.

Company culture or a lack of positive culture has recently been called out for some very epic fails in the tech start-up community. We believe one of the core elements at the root of this issue with culture is the inability for organizations to develop and invest in empathy. 

Yet, when you discuss softer elements like empathy in the tech community it is often misinterpreted, sometimes humorously so. This disconnect is becoming noticed through our media with one of the more obvious examples being HBO's comedy, Silicon Valley, and their imagery of their company CEO helping children in Africa. 

Nevertheless, I believe that a company which focuses on empathy building exercises gains tremendous benefits that go beyond corporate karma. If organizations saw that their efforts to think outside their companies could actually develop skills that improve innovation and the ability to authentically market and sell their services – maybe more people would embrace empathy in work and their role in being social responsible. 

What is empathy?

Empathy is not sympathy or pity. Empathy is the ability to understand and share someone else's feelings from their perspective. It’s about putting yourself authentically in someone else’s shoes. Asking questions from their point of view and not yours, pausing, listening and thinking about the opportunities / issues from that person’s position.

A lack of empathy can be at the heart of many of the mismatched power struggles we hear about in the news. Imagine if you could authentically live in someone else’s shoes. Prior to acting, or assuming you understand why they are doing something. Empathy is the feeling that if someone would just take a moment to understand things from the other side it could change opinions faster, and create dramatic positive impact.

Empathy has a crucial place in business and it is the ability to think outside your company to think like your customers, to think about your role outside your organization. I believe that empathy can be mutually beneficial not only to an organization’s karma but also to their bottom line.

How do you strengthen your company’s empathy muscle?

Jason Peck of GoCanvas and Brad Russell of Washington West Film Festival

Jason Peck, our Marketing Director, working with Washington West Film Festival.

At GoCanvas we have experimented with programs that open up creative ways for our team members to think outside themselves. This includes our Ante Up program. Ante Up allows our employees to pick passion projects where our solution could make a difference. Team members can gift our solution and their time to causes they are passionate about. If a cause successfully uses our solution – we pay for that employee once a year to work with that cause on the ground. This allows GoCanvas employees to see how an organization gets things done, the impact they have and in turn how our solution can make a difference. 

Empathy’s upside: the golden ticket to understanding your customers

I first saw the selfish power of empathy for business in some of the top tier sales training programs. These programs never said it, but were rooted in empathy. They were focused on putting you in your customer’s position.

Where were they coming from? What language did they use and understand? What did they need and want? What was important to them? Why did they feel a certain way? Instead of interpreting or finding a way to just sell them something, the simple exercise of developing empathy was an amazing tool to best meet their needs.

By thinking from the customer’s point of view, I found you could authentically persuade potential customers in their language about what mattered to them. Empathy in sales created a compelling emotional connection to potential customers, and helped create mutually beneficial relationships. I saw it not only in more engaged conversations with customers, but also in more sales closed.

Driving innovation

But empathy's effect on business doesn’t just impact sales numbers it is at the heart of the most amazing elements of product innovation.

In consumer based products you hire people who are not only passionate about the products they build but also are passionate because they use the product every day. Think Apple, Pinterest, Google.  But in B2B software daily use of a product is not always possible or practical. So how do you continue to innovate your offering using the shared experiences and input of your entire company?

We think a deeper ability to be empathetic is key to product innovation, improved sales, the most authentic marketing. 

Empathy’s other upsides

Many people think charitable programs such as Ante Up are about lip service, vanity and appearances. Empathy projects actually benefit companies in real ways, such as being able to:

Recruit the best and brightest

Millennials get a horrible rap. They are called selfish and lazy, but I've found them to be one of THE most passionate generations to work with. They have a unique perspective when looking for work: they want to see their impact. They don't want to just get rich. They want their work to matter. This is one of the main reasons that talent is heading to places like the valley and not Wall Street.

An empathetic environment deals with one of the biggest problems for tech: recruiting a diverse workforce. It isn't easy. Tech has a reputation for not being inclusive. It's still dominated by “white dudes”. There have been too many stories about women and minorities not feeling valued or safe in these companies.

Sure, you can tell someone don't say x or y. But, unless there's a culture of empathy, businesses will still struggle to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. There are plenty of groups and strategies that have been devised to impact this – but in the end it comes down to empathy.   

To be the best, we need the best, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. To keep that talent, everyone needs to feel safe and welcomed. Without empathy, businesses won't be able to find nor keep that talent. 

Achieve insanely great metrics

Creating empathy for your customers when you work within a diverse B2B organization can be challenging. GoCanvas, for instance, is utilized by organizations that include: doctors, plumbers, contractors, insurance adjusters, pest control workers, and even wildlife conservationists. How do you create authentic empathy for your customers when you aren’t an expert in their fields?

Empathy helps us continue to innovate by anticipating customer needs. It helps us create authentic marketing to various customers. It helps us connect on a human level and complete sales. Most importantly, it keep us focused on our mission: to provide a service that helps businesses thrive.

Without an ability to understand and connect to our customers, there's no way we could provide them a product that continues to evolve with them. 

Enjoy lots of good karma

As part of our culture, we encourage employees to give back in a way that matters to them. With our Ante Up program our employees have worked around the world understanding the needs of organizations on the front line of making a difference: one of our Senior Mobile App Consultants went on a trip of life time to South Africa to help an organization use data to stop the spread of rhino poaching. I was lucky enough to get to work with the Dandelion Network in Australia.  

Canvas CEO James Quigley with Sabi Sand teamOn a recent visit to South Africa, I got to visit Sabi Sand and help their staff with GoCanvas. 

The unintended consequence of our work? Our unique efforts helped those organizations achieve greater success and we shared in their victories. Our unique approach to giving back has been featured in The Washington Post and was even highlighted in a commercial spot by Telstra. Our good work helped raise our profile, and even helped us find new customers that may not have heard about us otherwise. 

We didn't create our Ante Up program as a marketing or lead generation tool. We started it as a way of allowing our company to think of our own personal and company’s role outside of ourselves. More importantly, it's a tool for our team to cultivate empathy.

We don't do this for the media: We do it to create a stronger, more passionate and dynamic team.  That makes us more innovative, passionate, and engaged.

So how do you create a culture of empathy?

After six years, this is what I've learned about creating an empathetic company culture.

1. Transparency is key

You may scratch your head, but without transparency, empathy is impossible. Empathy doesn't happen in a vacuum: to understand someone, you need to connect to their authentic self. When are we most authentic? When we trust someone. When we are clear about who we are, our opinions and expectations. We're more likely to work with and buy from companies that are honest and transparent.

Every company creates a transparent environment differently. At GoCanvas, we have our metrics available to everyone inside the company. This creates a sense of accountability inside the company. Our entry level employees can ask hard questions about my job or anyone else's work based on these numbers. 

This isn't the only path to transparency: Buffer has made their entire company's metrics available to the public. No matter what path you take, transparency and trust is a journey, not an on or off switch. We are constantly making the choice to step up and be accountable to each other. It can be uncomfortable at times, but without it, achieving empathy is impossible.   

2. An opportunity to give back

Empathy isn't just an innate skill: it's a tool that can be taught as well as honed over time. This is a major reason we created Ante Up. We wanted to give people opportunity to give back in areas that they were passionate about and connect with people outside of their day-day work. By centering it around our product, we keep it company-focused and customer-facing. 

Opportunities to give back are great ways at promoting empathy. Rather than a required day of service, harnessing people's passion creates more engagement and willingness to connect. 

3. It starts at the top

I have made sure that our culture of empathy starts with me and then is rooted in how all of our team leads and members approach achieving their goals. We hire team members and team leads considering their ability to be empathetic and we have taken that as far as currating investors and board members who are equally committed to our culture of empathy. 

Being authentic as a leader means staying close to the front line and being personally responsible for a level of ongoing direct impact yourself. In our offices, I sit out in the open space with everyone else, I promote being available and for our team members to feel comfortable to not only work but play. It may seem like a diversion, but this helps us to continue to set the groundwork for trust, transparency, and most importantly empathy. 

I continue to look and think about ways to maintain our culture and ensure we stay a warm, friendly, and empathetic place. Empathy has been crucial to our ability to create an amazing product and to continue to surprise and delight our customers. 

It can be tempting to just focus on strategy instead of culture, to focus on revenue and growth instead of empathy. But, without empathy, there's no way we'd have gotten this far. With more scrutiny than ever before, empathy isn't an added bonus: it's necessary if you want to create a company that has a lasting impact.