Best Advice I Ever Got: Make Empathy Your Superpower

Mina Chang is CEO and president of Linking the World, an international humanitarian aid organization with a focus on children, global awareness, and breaking the cycle of poverty around the world. Linking the World has been saving lives and transforming communities since 1997 through its unique emphasis on partnerships to kindle hope.

Empathy is misunderstood. It's confused for pity, and it's associated with victims, "soft skills" and fuzzy feelings.

Even "experts" from a well-intentioned nonprofit can get it wrong. They'll land in a poverty-stricken community and start building schools, flying in foreign volunteer teachers, donating truckloads of school supplies and shipping in biweekly deliveries of grain. But in trying to end the cycle of poverty, the organization only creates another devastating cycle--one of dependency.

I would suggest that instead of coming in poised as the savior, they arrive in humble solidarity and stand shoulder to shoulder with those they want to help. If the aid organization had taken the time to understand and listen to the community, it would have realized that fully capable local teachers could have been employed and that locally farmed grain was available. Most importantly, they would have seen that they needed to empower the community to lift itself out of poverty, not victimize it.

I learned an important lesson from my parents, former commanding officers of the Salvation Army. In this work of disaster response and humanitarian aid, one might think that empathy would drain you or distract you from keeping the bottom line in focus. But my parents' best advice to me, which I've applied in the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, is that empathy isn't a weakness; it's a superpower that's ingrained in me--in all of us. In fact, it's exactly what empowers us all.

As a business leader, here are some ways to harness empathy and make it your superpower, too:

1. Use empathy to create your vision.

Empathy is commonly explained by the phrase "walk a mile in someone else's shoes." But it's more than just that. It's walking side by side with someone, listening with intent, and using the knowledge gained to create your vision.

The business world has become so consumed with strategies and market studies that we forget our naturally ingrained ability to understand and create for the marketplace. Customers aren't just numbers on a graph. Practice empathizing with them, and you'll know how they want to be treated--no market study necessary.

2. Use empathy to become mission-driven.

A 2013 study published by Spherion found that 70 percent of employees surveyed had greater job satisfaction at companies where clear mission statements were in place and followed. With no mission statement, only 23 percent were satisfied.

When you become mission-driven, you're operating from a more powerful source. You can be more fulfilled than when you operate with your eyes fixed on the dollar signs.

3. Use empathy to inspire loyalty.

Get to know the people on your team, and uncover what motivates them. With employee turnover rates rising every year, you can inspire loyalty by allowing your team members to not only provide a product or service, but also fulfill their purpose in life. Prove to your teammates that your company can help them achieve their goals.

That feeling of unity you create has benefits that you can't even see. The act of empathizing produces dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin--all of which contribute to a sense of well-being. By empathizing with those around you, you'll bring people together, drive loyalty, and inspire your team members to become shareholders in your company's success.

4. Use empathy as a your default communication tool.

Engage in meaningful conversations with people from all over--even those who don't share your views. You don't have to agree, but you can come to a shared understanding. Empathy has the power to break down barriers and open doors.

Your team meetings won't be effective if people are talking at each other rather than spending time listening and empathizing. You have the power to turn your bland business meeting into a collaborative session of mutual discovery. Communicating with empathy is intelligent leadership.

5. Use empathy to sidestep the rat race.

In a world where a "sell, sell, sell" mentality is rewarded and a cutthroat market seems synonymous with success, it's easy to push empathy aside.

After the 2008 crash, banks had to be rescued by huge government bailouts because they'd valued profits over people for too long. This is where using empathy as your secret weapon can save you. It protects you from missing the big picture and having a laser focus on the bottom line.

Using empathy as my superpower is the most valuable piece of advice I've ever received. Tapping into it gives me an accurate worldview. In your business, using your power to empathize will give you an amazing perspective. Humanizing people--even your competitors--will help you gain the advantage and propel you to success.

Mina Chang