Build empathy into your strategic planning process

“A strategy without empathy is a wasted idea.”

That’s a quote from Brian Garish, president of Banfield Pet Hospital, the leading provider of preventive veterinary care in the United States, with more than 1,000 hospitals and more than 19,000 associates in neighborhoods across the country.

Over the past several years, he has led Banfield through many empathy-based strategic decisions: adding mental health professionals and programs to address mental health issues and high suicide rates among vets; and providing debt relief programs to help veterinarians with heavy student debt burdens.

These are strategies created by people who have gone out of their way to find out what their associates were facing in their lives and then fix it.

It’s not hard to find examples to the contrary: strategies that seem to have been designed with only the bottom line in mind. Things like only offering the bare minimum in terms of family leave, neglecting benefits that help employees manage mental health and well-being, being too strict about where and how people can do their job, are just some of the things that come to mind.

When I say they act with “only the bottom line in mind, I don’t mean that those making these decisions willfully ignore the needs of employees. They are more likely not to see the needs. They don’t know what employees are struggling with. They did not try to dig to find out.

Most leaders and organizations have many processes to find places to improve efficiency and reduce costs. What we need is a process to achieve empathy. Empathy requires making a concerted effort to know and account for people’s realities and values.

  • We have value: we want to be included.
  • We are worthy: we want to be seen in our full humanity.
  • We are unique: we want to be ourselves.
  • We have the experience and the insight: we want to do more.
  • We have ideas: we want to explore our possibility.

In a previous article, I presented five indicators as a starting point for identifying where we might suppress individuality so that we can pause and pivot into unleashing. See how these two lists relate to each other. We need to assess:

  • Who we let in (we want to be included)
  • How we see them (we want to be seen in our full humanity)
  • Who we let ’em be (we wanna be ourselves)
  • What we let them do (we want to do more)
  • How we let them (we want to explore our possibility)

These are the main components of individuality, and if we use them as a guide, they can help us create systems that invite people to be themselves. We need people to see and believe that it is safe and beneficial to share who they really are and what they are struggling with in their lives.

We can build empathy into our strategic planning.

New results from the 2020 Benefits Survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) show employers are expanding benefits that support remote work, care and health, which comes as no surprise after our collective experience of the pandemic. These particular needs became quite evident as we all adapted to challenges ranging from the horrors of Covid-19 to the boredom of trying to be productive without access to all the internal resources that we suddenly realized we depended.

But we can’t achieve that kind of empathy if we don’t see each other. We need to create systems that will help make it more likely that leaders see what people are struggling with.

It’s easier said than done. You have to:

  1. Know your people. But it starts with…
  2. Empower people to share what they really need. But success depends on…
  3. Help people feel safe enough with you to be vulnerable and ask for what they really need.

This kind of culture starts at the top. On that note, back to Brian Garish and Banfield.

Garish wasn’t the only one making decisions about the mental health and debt relief programs mentioned above. But he set a listening tone that invited Banfield associates to share their lives. As a result, leaders were able to identify needs and create strategies to meet them.

In his first six months with Banfield, Garish visited 140 of the hospitals. He always made it clear that everyone in the hospital was invited to participate. In one of these gatherings – he calls them “huddles” – someone asked him, “What happened to our Fun-Scrub Friday?” Garish was still new at the time and didn’t know what it was, so he said, “You tell me what happened.”

“Well, it’s cancelled.”

Garish kept asking questions. what was that? On Fridays, we could wear all the scrubs we wanted. Why did you like it? It allowed us to express ourselves.

When Garish met with senior leaders later, he invited to discuss: If our associates are engaged, work well together, feel valued and respected, does what they wear matter? No. So they changed the policy.

Shortly after, on another visit to the hospital in another city, he told one of the associates, “We have a new policy. Wear the scrubs you want. Just keep them clean and professional. This associate immediately started dancing with delight. Garish made a video and posted it on Instagram (with his permission, of course). This video got five times more views than his videos usually garnered.

“Obviously this story is not about my Instagram views,” Garish told me. “This is what this leap of sight told me. Our associates were thrilled. They spoke up, we heard them, and we changed something as a result. Culture has always been my priority. The company’s strategic direction was the second priority, because a strategy without empathy is a wasted idea.

If we look at this story through the prism of the indicators mentioned above:

  • Who you let in: Garish said everyone at the hospital is welcome to participate in these huddles.
  • How you see them: He considered them worthy of listening, whatever their role.
  • Who do you let them be: By removing an unnecessary restriction, they allowed people to be themselves and express themselves.
  • What you let them do: The associates were confident enough to decide for themselves what to wear.
  • How do you let them: In this case, the “how” can apply to sharing ideas: an open “huddle” gave people space and a safe space to speak up and ask questions in the moment.

Whether the strategy you’re considering involves your uniform policy or involves where and how to invest in your employees, you’ll make the best decisions if you’ve created a system that supports a culture of empathy.

Learn more at my organization’s third annual Virtual Summit on Leadership in the Age of Personalization to discover how to unleash individuality by answering these five critical questions:

  1. Who are you letting in?
  2. How do you view those you let in?
  3. Who do you let them be?
  4. What do you let them do?
  5. How do you let them?

Louisa R. Loomis