Corporate empathy is not an oxymoron

The corporate world is an increasingly intimate and interactive space.

In a transparent world dominated by social media, corporations are feeling the need to become truly responsive to the needs of their customers and employees. The corporate world is an increasingly immediate, intimate and interactive space. The call for companies to engage in authentic dialogue is becoming louder.

And yet this desire to change is hampered by the fear of appearing weak and vulnerable, meaning that most businesses still suffer from an empathy deficit.

Enlightened companies are increasingly aware that delivering empathy for their customers, employees and the public is a powerful tool for improving profits, but attempts to implement empathy programs are frequently hamstrung by the common misconception of it as “wishy-washy,” “touchy-feely” and overtly feminine. So empathy is deprioritized, and relegated to the status of just yet another HR initiative that looks good in the company newsletter.

An additional problem facing CEOs is that many see empathy as an intangible quality, and as such hard to quantify. If you can’t measure empathy, then it is very difficult to assess how much empathy your company is delivering, and where the greatest empathy deficits lie.

This is a misconception. Empathy can be measured, and your business’s empathy quotient can be assessed, allowing CEOs to pinpoint their companies’ strengths and weaknesses, and see how they rank alongside their competitors. Empathy should be embedded into the entire organization: There is nothing soft about it. It is a hard skill that should be required from the board-room to the shop floor.

Corporations must demonstrate empathy across three channels: internally, to their own employees, externally, to their customers, and finally to the public via social media. At our consultancy, the combination of these, with equal weighting across the three channels, gives us a company’s “empathy quotient.” We recently applied our thinking to the 100 best-known companies in the U.K., where we’re based (the results and methodology can be seen here: bit.ly/1DC1nrk).

Which, then, are the most empathic and least empathic household names? And what does this tell us about the way the corporate world is dealing with its empathy deficit?

While confirming many of our expectations, the results revealed a number of interesting surprises. The top places were not all taken up by trendy tech brands, and the bottom was not dominated by multinational banks. The sector that fared worse was the telecoms, with Vodafone and BT scoring particularly badly. Employee and customer satisfaction are the casualties of the race for short-term profits that is endemic in that sector. Their social media strategies tell one part of the story: They are over-reliant on unhelpful canned responses which merely shunt customers to more traditional forms of contact, such as call centers.

According to our index, the highest performing company was LinkedIn. It was striking that LinkedIn actually has a strong presence on the rival platform Twitter. One might expect them to force customers exclusively onto to their own channels of communication – which is the policy of both Twitter and Facebook. Instead, the company makes an effort to go where their customers are, even at the risk of being seen to endorse a rival product. This approach shows that LinkedIn empathizes with its customers’ interests and choices.

We expected the small and medium-sized companies to come out on top, guessing that larger companies would be the least empathic. But large companies were evenly distributed and well represented at both ends of the scale. There is absolutely no evidence that being big automatically makes you unempathic. Empathy is most definitely not a problem of scale, but more an indication of management priorities.

(Belinda Parmar is the CEO of the consultancy Lady Geek and the author of “The Empathy Era” and “Little Miss Geek.”)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate