May 12, 2017

How to Inspire Culture with Empathy and Dialog

Inspired cultures are built by leaders with the ability to empathize with people across their organizations. We work best with people we think understand who we are and why we do what we do.

And while empathy and emotional intelligence are buzz words in the human capital industry, do we really understand how to empathize? Is trying to relate to someone the same thing as actually understanding their perspective?  

Empathy isn’t an act of imagination – it’s a conversation. Thinking about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is more akin to sympathy or pity than it is to actually understanding what his struggles are like.

“Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge… is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.”

~Bill Bullard

I recently gave a lecture to a group of veterans transitioning into civilian life and looking to start their own businesses. It started with me trying to empathize with them.

I thanked them for their service.




And while I’ve never been in the service, I told them: “I get it.”

Creating a business is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I can imagine transitioning into civilian life must be tough. Creating a business on top of that…


“I get it.”

I never knew my grandfather. He was a tank commander during WWII and traveled that fabled route from Normandy to Berlin. When I was a kid, every time I’d go to my grandma’s house, I’d go up to her attic, and I’d dig through his old war chest. Some of my earliest memories are of pulling out his Nazi swords and tank manuals. As a result, I’ve read more military history than I can rattle off.

“So I get it.”

I used to ask my uncle what it was like to ride as a machine gunner on the side of a helicopter over the jungles of Vietnam.

“I get it.”

My friend in college was in the special forces in Afghanistan working as a translator, my barber served in the army, and one of my partners runs a very successful consultancy and was a former helicopter pilot.

“So really…I get it.”

Military to civilian life must be the epitome of culture shock, it must be really hard, and we as a country and a society should really be doing more to help our veterans!

Last week I watched some documentaries about it…I even listened to a podcast from Stanley McCrystal about transitioning into civilian life after a lifetime in the service.

I even played some video games just to try and understand what training for combat must be like.

Because I’m trying to empathize by doing my homework! I listened to the stories, read the books, and did everything I could to try and understand…

Yet, I’ve never been to basic training, flown on an airplane or been on a boat that doesn’t have a corporate logo on the side. Hell I couldn’t even run a mile, let alone one in a pair of combat boots with a backpack on…so you tell me…

How full of shit do you think I sound right now?



I don’t get it…do I?

And the assumption that I could get it, that I could really ever understand what it’s like to to be them without enlisting, serving years in the military, and then going through the process of transitioning out of that experience back into civilian life…

Is the natural inclination of everyone who thinks about “empathizing”, because we think we can think like other people.

But I am not you, and you are not me.

After about five minutes of telling a room full of vets that “I get it”, I saw the room turn. They were crossing their arms, shifting in their chairs, and staring at me with looks mixed between anger, confusion, and boredom.

But once I told them I was full of it, that I knew I had no idea what it was like to be them, we went on to have one of the most inspiring dialogs that I’ve ever been a part of in front of an audience.

I invited A 30-year artilleryman came up on stage, and the group and I asked him questions about what he’d learned in the service that he wanted to take with him into civilian life.

Why did he want to be a business owner?

What it would mean to him to not have someone giving him orders for the first time in his professional life?

What doesn’t he know that he thinks he needs to learn?

The best teams have these types of interactions and conversations. I don’t know what it’s like to be a developer. I don’t know what it’s like to work long hours with a spouse and children at home. I don’t know what it’s like to work for a tech company or startup as a minority.



Yet, my natural inclination is to assume that I can easily put myself in someone else’s shoes, that the culture I’m building is going to align with the values of someone else on my team that has a completely different experience both inside and outside of the office.

I don’t get it. But I want to get it, and that’s a step in the right direction.

It’s a mistake to believe that empathy requires only imagination. It requires dialog. Open and honest conversation creates organizations where people can be who they are.

When I first started planning my lecture for that group of veterans, my mind honestly went to all the examples I gave them. I tried to imagine all of the ways that I could relate to them, only to quickly realize that without joining the service, no amount of research was ever going to help me understand.

I needed to have a real conversation. When I started asking that vet questions on stage, I learned how his time in the military had impacted his worldview, taught him things that I’d never fully be able to understand, gave him a deep appreciation for the time he was about to spend with his family. If I was going to employ him, I’d have an empathetic perspective of what his drivers were and how I could set him up to be successful in my organization.

When was the last time you sat down with a colleague and asked what she wants to be when she grows up? When was the last time you asked a new hire what he wants to learn instead of telling him what he’s going to do?



During every interview, onboarding session, and performance review, I ask people: where do you want to be in 1, 5, and 10 years. I want them to answer that they’ll be working with WeVue – helping us to create software that inspires other teams. But that’s my dream…and while they’re sharing in that vision for the moment, I’d be deluding myself if I thought they were telling the truth when they told me they hope they’re in the same role, with the same company, five years down the line. Instead, when they tell me “I want to be running my own company in five years…” I can set them up with a set of skills and a position that makes them feel like they’re progressing toward their dreams while helping me work towards mine.
Here’s your challenge for the week: assume you don’t get it. What would you do differently?