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In defense of empathy

When we think of leadership, certain characteristics usually come to mind—resilience, scrappiness, and competitiveness among others. While these characteristics are definitely important for successful leadership, there’s one in particular that should be added to the mix—empathy.

For many founders, success depends on their emotional intelligence and ability to empathize with others. How a founder reads, understands, and reacts to the people around them is not only useful but imperative to build and grow a company. It comes into play at every stage of a company’s development from conceptualizing a product, to marketing it, to creating a work environment conducive to the success of employees as well as the business itself. In my own experience empathy definitely helped me grow Eligible into the company it is today.

Before I founded Eligible, I worked at a startup called drchrono, which was building a product for healthcare records on iPads. I joined the founders as the company’s first employee, responsible for sales, and took it upon myself to learn the inner working of not only drchrono’s product, but really understand their customers.

In a way, it means listening (i.e. learning).

While at drchrono, I met one of the country’s top oncologists. In one of our discussions he told me about an issue he was having collecting payment. He was waiting for millions of dollars because of a few clerical errors. I couldn’t believe it. This doctor, who was helping his patients beat cancer, had to worry about his practice’s finances because of overdue payments from insurance providers. By paying attention to small nuances in the doctor’s experience, the idea for Eligible was born—a platform that would make it simple for developers to automate the billing process for doctors, freeing them up to do what they do best.

When I began working on Eligible, I encountered many more doctors similar to the oncologist. They all had stories to share, and it was listening to these numerous accounts that helped me build the best product for them and their patients. Working in tech, it often feels like we have to move at light speed, but as great as being fast can be, it can leave little to no room to take a step back and listen. This is a crucial step to internalizing information and understanding others as well as their situations. By taking that extra time or effort to listen and pay attention to others it allows a person to gain perspective they may not have had before. This can inspire a new approach or tactic to connect with your customer. It’s this perspective that can really set a company apart in the eyes of its customers.

It also fosters good teamwork.

There’s an African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,” and I wholeheartedly agree. Teamwork propels business forward, and one of the most important pieces to nurturing a successful team is empathy. Effective teamwork is more easily achieved if you pay attention to others emotions and thoughts. Empathy drives open communication, collaboration, and positivity.

For example, at Eligible, we recently received feedback from our employees that they wanted more transparency and ability to focus on the important matters of the day to help guide their weekly work schedule. After receiving, listening, and understanding this feedback it was important for me to build an environment where our employees felt they were being set up for success.

The drive to set the stage properly comes from empathy.

When I was growing up, my mother scrubbed the floors each night to give us a clean slate to start our morning, and focus our efforts on the tasks for that day. It’s with this same philosophy in mind that we “scrub the floors” for the team at Eligible. Each week we build out detailed delivery plans that tie back to long-term quarterly goals for each department so they know what they’re working on and how their work contributes to Eligible’s broader vision and goal as a company. The result has been increased levels of efficiency, and productivity of our employees, and consequently Eligible’s growth.

How to grow your empathy? Open your eyes.

For those wondering how they can build their emotional intelligence, many possess the skill already, though they may undervalue it and consequently don’t incorporate it into their everyday work life. The good news is that it’s something that can be developed. In many ways, empathy in the workplace starts with awareness. Paying attention to this skill as a leader, listening to what it tells you, and positioning yourself to better utilize this skill is very important.

When you encounter a situation, read the signs, which can mean paying attention to facial expressions and body language. Understand the situation by listening to what the other person is saying and react to the situation in a way that shows you care.

Empathy yields a power that is often underestimated and underutilized. When tapped properly, it can help you build and grow your business in ways you may never have dreamed or expected.