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Why Empathy Is the #1 Leadership Skill


Empathy is the number one leadership skill. Marketing Insider Group CEO Michael Brenner shares how empathy can help drive profits and improve employees’ day-to-day life.

Empathy is more important now than ever. Marketing Insider Group CEO Michael Brenner shares how empathy can help drive profits and improve employees’ day-to-day life.


Why Empathy Is the #1 Leadership Skill

16 minutes | 5/19/2020

00:00:00 00:00

Episode Transcript

Craig Irons: Hello, again, and welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast from DDI. I'm Craig Irons and I'll be your host today. With our time today we're going to talk about one of the most important skills leaders need to employ during every single one of the 480 minutes they have every day and that skill is empathy. But it seems like for every leader who understands the importance of empathy, there's at least one who just doesn't get it. Well, our guest today is definitely a leader who gets it. Michael Brenner is the CEO of Marketing Insider Group where he has worked with more than 75 brands to build effective content marketing and employee activation programs. He's also a sought after speaker and author. In his new book, which we're going to talk about today is called, "Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads to Bigger Profits and a Better Life." Entrepreneur magazine recently named the book one of its 15 books on business culture you need to read today. Michael Brenner, welcome to the Leadership 480 Podcast.

Micheal Brenner: Craig, thanks so much for having me.

Craig Irons: So I want to start by diving into something that you bring up right at the outset of your book and your book is fantastic by the way, which is that you have held 53 jobs and that inspired me to sit down and actually make a list of all the jobs I've held. And if my math is right, I think I'm a couple of years older than you are and I think I've held about half as many jobs as you have. So 53 is a very high number. You're a marketing consultant, you're a speaker and a writer, but it would seem that holding 53 jobs would make you a bit of an expert on empathy. Is that the case?

Micheal Brenner:  Well, I think if you have empathy, I don't think you're allowed to call yourself an expert on empathy.

Craig Irons: That's great insight.

Micheal Brenner: Maybe that's more humility. I'm not sure. But no, I don't think the 53 jobs allowed me to have more empathy. I think just really being a human walking this earth and interacting with other people sort of allows you to have I think an ability to at least comment on empathy if not necessarily having an expertise. But, empathy is really just something that I think we need to employ. We're sort of forced to employ every single day because the pings of life happen to all of us and we don't want them to happen to us. And because of that, we feel for others when it happens to them. And therefore, I think we all pretty much can understand the experience of empathy unless of course you're a psychopath, in which case, there's really no hope for you when it comes down to empathy. But for the large majority of us, more of us have it than we realize.

Craig Irons: So let's talk about what motivated you to write this book. So your books in the past have been more marketing focused, but this one on empathy, was it those 53 jobs in your experiences with those? What was really sort of the germ of an idea here where the inspiration that led you to sit down and write this book?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, I was actually having a conversation at an event called Content Marketing World, where we've met I think twice if not more than that.

Craig Irons: Correct.

Micheal Brenner: And I was walking down the street to the opening event at the Hard Rock Cafe there in Cleveland and I know you've been there. And I was talking to the head of an agency at the time, I was a corporate marketer at a large technology company. And I remember she asked me, she's like, "Wow, you seem like, really personable, humble, kind of an executive. What would you consider was the secret to your success?" And it was kind of a question that threw me off, number one, because I really never considered myself an executive. Number two, I certainly didn't consider myself a success. I still at the time and continue to feel like I have more to accomplish, but it just kind of got me to start thinking, well, where have I come from and where did I start? And I started looking and counting, like you said, counting all the positions I've had.

Micheal Brenner: Of course, I started working at the age of 11 or 12 so I've started earlier than some people, but I was shocked when I reached the number 50. It's actually 52, I count being a husband, a father, a part-time therapist to my kids as my job number 53. But I was just shocked at how many jobs I actually had. So that was one insight. The second one came up a little bit later. I know you're familiar, but your audience may not be familiar with the book. The first book I wrote was The Content Formula. And I wrote it because as a marketer, I was frustrated at the lack of return on investment that most marketers were able to show for their marketing activities. So I looked at, and I felt it was fairly mathematical, fairly simple to define how to measure the success of a marketing program and that book was called "The Content Formula."

Micheal Brenner: I handed that out and I started my career as an independent consultant and I was going back to people who I had sent the book to and they still weren't doing the marketing that I think would lead to return on investment. And I asked them why and in almost every situation they would say, "Can you replace my boss? Can you teach our company to suck less?" It really came down to culture. And so it was the two things, both the sort of reflection on my own success and realizing that I think where I was successful, I felt that there was a culture of empathy or I had a mentor who was really empathetic and my experience with my clients and seeing where they struggled was largely not because of skills or technology, but because of the lack of a culture of empathy that allowed them to do their jobs. That really got in the way.

Micheal Brenner: So that's why I wrote this book. I wrote the book because I believe that empathy is a counter intuitive insight that we think we need to be mean in order to get ahead. But it's really the opposite. It's the leaders that focus on empathy. It's the companies that focus on a culture of empathy that drive more innovation and more really frankly, rewarding careers for the people that work there.

Craig Irons: All right, right. Let's talk a bit about the nature of empathy itself. From the research you did for this book, is empathy something we're born with and what does the research say about how hard it is to develop empathy?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, it's interesting. It's almost the first or second question I get from a lot of folks, which makes me feel like people think that no one has empathy. So it's interesting. The research, and I talk about this in the book, in the early part of the first couple of chapters, the research shows that we're not actually born with empathy. We learn it, but we learn it at a super early age. And what happens is what the psychologists and childhood psychologists realized is the first moment that we understand and appreciate the experience of pain. We realize it's something we don't like. It's unpleasant. And we also realize that it's sad when that happens to someone else. And so that's really what happens. There's a connection that we make between the factors that cause us pain and the unpleasantness of that feeling and the desire to not have that feeling happen to other people.

Micheal Brenner: And so basically it comes down to this, if you don't like feeling pain, then you generally, if you're human and you're not a psychopathic, like I said, will generally not want pain to happen to other people. Now it starts to get a little complicated as we get older because we start to think, well, if I have to make a choice between pain happening to someone else and pain happening to me, I'm going to choose pain happening to someone else. But that doesn't mean that we don't have empathy in most situations, people will choose pain to not happen to either one, you or someone else. So empathy is something that we don't need to be taught and it's actually an article I need to write. Do we need to teach empathy? And the answer is no. We all have it. What we need to do is we need to create a society, create organizations that value empathy. And that's the difference between the companies and the people that have it and express it and the companies and the people or leaders that don't.

Craig Irons: We're talking to Michael Brenner, author of the new book Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads to Bigger Profits and a Better Life. Let's talk a bit more about why empathy is so important for individual leaders. I know that in our DDI courses, one of the foundational concepts that we impart in those courses is what we call a set of key principles that really help address the personal needs that everyone brings to an interaction. And one of those key principles is the need to listen and to respond with empathy. So it's very, very important for leaders to have empathy as a skill. What can you really say about really the importance of empathy and why is it something that maybe doesn't get emphasized as much as it should as organizations are trying to develop their leaders?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah. Well, I think there's... First, let me talk a little bit about the myth. And I think the myth that many leaders have when they reach a position of authority is that being a leader means telling people what to do, which is exactly counter to the point you just made. We need to teach leaders. It's sad that we need to teach leaders that listening is important. And the reason we have to say it at all is because the myth that leaders have when they're new to a position of authority, the myth that they're in charge and they should tell people what to do. Leaders are not put in positions of power in order to tell people what to do. Leaders are put in position of power in order to rally their teams to achieve a common goal.

Micheal Brenner: Now of course, leaders may have more influence in defining what the goal is and maybe even in some ways how to achieve that goal. But the large majority of leaders are called leaders because they're leading a group of people who they need in order to accomplish a goal. So empathy is super important. So, that's the myth. We have to break that myth. Now let me get to the data. I did the research. I looked at my own primary research. I looked at tons and tons of literature that's out there. And what it shows is that in almost every situation where there is a successful team, let's talk about the Navy seals for example. The Navy seals are successful, not because they have commanders ahead of them that are telling them what to do more effectively than other groups in the military, they're more successful because they learn how to work as a team towards a common goal.

Micheal Brenner: They have empathy for each other. In other words, they consider themselves all as leaders. It kind of flips the model. I asked for example, a question, a two part question. Do you feel you work at a company that's innovative and do you feel that you have a manager who shows empathy towards what you're trying to do or your goals? And what I found was that not a single employee who worked at an innovative company reflected or stated that they didn't have a manager who showed empathy. In other words, empathy, whether it's causation or correlation, I can't say for sure I need to do more research. But the point is that if we want our teams to accomplish their goals, if we want our companies to be innovative and drive impact towards the goals that we're trying to achieve, we need leaders that show empathy for their teams. And those teams are going to be more happy in their roles and more happy in their careers. And so that's really why empathy is not important for leaders, it's absolutely critical for leaders that want to be successful.

Craig Irons: So you mentioned innovation and one of the types of leaders, or maybe it's more of a leadership trait that you described it in the book is the champion leader. What can you tell us about that concept?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, I actually almost titled the book the champion leader and it produced too many yawns on the folks that I tested it with, hence the title, the punch them in the gut kind of title Mean People Suck. The champion leader concept, really it's a descriptor, champion of the term leadership because of that myth that leaders think that their job is to be authoritative and to be mean in some cases. The champion leader, it really reverses our common misperception that we need to tell people what to do. The champion leader actually reverses that concept and asks their team what they should do. It's crazy. Even we've got a famous leadership quote that we don't hire smart people and tell them what to do because it's that insane. Why would you care if you're hiring smart people if you're just going to tell them what to do? An idiot can can perform a simple task that they're told. We hire smart people because we want to hear their thoughts. We want to hear what they do.

Micheal Brenner: A champion leader is very simply somebody who, for example, in a simple conversation, interaction with their team might say, here's what I want you to do or tell me the status of your projects. But a champion leader is going to sit down with their team and say, "How are you doing? How is the progress that you're making towards the goals that we've set out? How can I help you achieve that goal and how am I doing as a leader in supporting you?" That's a champion leader. It's someone that completely sees their role as supporting their team in achieving a common objective.

Craig Irons: So we've talked a good bit empathy as an individual behavior, but in your book you also talk a good bit about empathy as an organizational behavior as it relates to how companies treat and communicate with customers or prospective customers. So why is empathy sort of viewed that way good for business?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, we're seeing a lot of conversation happening I think now lately about the term purpose. And some people think it's a little too touchy, feely, but the reason is that there's been for decades a preponderance of data that supports that companies that are focused on a higher purpose, more than, let's say higher purpose, meaning not just profits are actually more successful at generating those profits. And so I'll start with, and I mentioned in the book, one of my biggest inspirations was the first business book I ever actually read voluntarily called The Service Profit Chain. It was a Harvard business review article in 1993. The book came out in 1994 by a number of authors. What the book simply showed and proved through research was that companies that focus on satisfied employees, those satisfied employees create happier customers who stay longer and spend more. In essence, happy employees create happy customers who create happy shareholders because the profits and the stock price go up.

Micheal Brenner: That was the first inspiration in the data. The second one was a book by the former CMO of P&G Jim Stengel called Grow. He also showed through an analysis of companies by looking just objectively at their sort of mission statements, companies that had a mission that had a higher purpose, more than profits we're more likely, not just by a little bit, but by four times more likely to be successful than those who didn't. They had a 400% higher stock price. So companies that focus on empathy, companies that focus on empathy for their employees and their customers, for the sustainability of the planet, for the neighborhoods and the communities that they work and operate in are simply more successful at generating profit. And so this is why I think empathy is so important as a value inside company cultures.

Craig Irons: Another concept you discuss in Mean People Suck is placing the customer at the center of the org chart. And I saw that and it just like kind of smacked me between the eyes. That's absolutely brilliant. Why didn't we think of this before? So how did you sort of come to that realization that that's so critically important that everything an organization does really needs to be centered around customers? It may not be formalized in terms of an org chart, but it's a very, very compelling concept.

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, thank you. Again, I'm not an organizational design psychologist or anything like that and I didn't go to school for those sort of disciplines. But in looking at, well number one, looking at the 53 jobs that I had and trying to figure out, why was I never, or too few times was I in a position where I enjoyed the people that I worked with, the people that I worked for, the company I was working in, usually one of those three things wasn't there. And the reason that I pointed was almost always the org chart. It was maybe not my direct manager, but the people above him or her that were directing us to do things that I knew wouldn't work. Or maybe it was my teammates who wanted to but couldn't work collaborative collaboratively with me because their VP was telling them to do something that crossed purposes to me. And the org chart always got in the way.

Micheal Brenner: The org chart is really, I think I said in the book, show me an organization with problems and I can show you the org chart is the reason for those problems or challenges. So then I asked, well what would a new model look like? And I just kind of drew the customer and then drew the sort of the departments around it and it looked like a bullseye. It's just I think it's a way for us not necessarily to reorganize our functions and disciplines and teams around the organization. It's really more of an operating model. I mentioned if every function inside of the organization was asking what's in it for the customer? Our companies would radically transform. We would stop doing anything that doesn't drive value for customers and we would become significantly more efficient, significantly more profitable because the large majority of us inside organizations are doing what our manager tells us to do. And that may or may not add any value whatsoever for the end customer, which is absolutely at cross purposes to the goal of the organization.

Micheal Brenner: So, again, hopefully it inspires some folks. One of the things I tried to do in the book is to say, hey, we need to change organizational culture. We need to put empathy as a value. We need to put customers at the center. But how do you do that? Whether you're the CEO or you're a low level employee and both champion leadership, the bullseye org chart, what's in it for the customer I think are ways that anyone could do it no matter where you are in the organization.

Craig Irons: Our guest today is Michael Brenner, author of the book Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads to Bigger Profits and a Better Life. Michael as you were writing the book and we've talked here about your 53 jobs including husband and father, which I guess I could add to my list too which is a great insight in and of itself. But as you spend time reflecting on all those jobs and all your experience and the jobs you've had that both good and bad, through the process of writing this and that reflection, what did you learn about some of the people you've worked for and worked with and really what did you learn about yourself?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah. I mean I think anybody that writes a book is in the process of some sort of self reflection. And one of the things that I learned, well, it's funny, on Facebook for example, a lot of old colleagues, especially people that I reported to, reached out to me and asked if they could get a copy of the book. A number of folks asked, "Hey, are you going to talk about this person or that person that we all knew he was kind of a jerk or something." And my answer was always the same it was like, "No, I'm not naming names because that would be mean. And this is a book that's trying to not be mean." No, I think the one thing that I learned is that it was interesting that some of the biggest lessons I learned, I learned from those managers that were really challenging.

Micheal Brenner: I had one of my most impactful mentors was someone who was considered to be really mean by a lot of other people. Although he seemed to like me and really taught me a lot. And he's actually the inspiration for one of the chapters on how we need to really learn how to do a better job at defining the business case behind our ideas, defend and tell stories and present our ideas inside our organizations. That was one example, another example was it was a manager who I think, I want to say everyone that's ever worked for this person pretty much thought I was writing this book about this one individual. And he or she is also reflected in the book because I learned a tremendous lesson from this individual about really the value of speaking to your stakeholders and getting your whole team on board and behind you.

Micheal Brenner: I tell the story about how I got fired really surprisingly and how the folks that I had worked with came to my defense and I don't want to ruin the ending of the story, but I was saved by my teammates in a way because I had built rapport with them and tried to figure out how I could help them. So I learned a lot from those folks that were in many cases, the meanest and it's why I don't really recommend that if you're in a bad situation that your first reaction should be to leave. I really partly wrote this book to empower folks to believe that they can change the situation they're in to be in a career that's fulfilling and that makes an impact. And so that's one of the biggest things I learned is don't give up too soon. And hopefully I provided some tools in the book to everyone that they could use to try to change their situation for the better.

Craig Irons: Terrific. Really good stuff. One of the things that struck me as I was reading your book is you can be really good at what you do. You can work very hard and you can apply the golden rule and treat others the way you'd like them to treat you. And that won't inoculate you from having to work for or with jerks sometimes. So I guess the question that sort of accompanies that thought for me is, does treating others with empathy increase the likelihood that they'll in turn treat you with empathy?

Micheal Brenner: Well, yeah, I mean I spent a lot of a good part of my career in the market research field. And one of the things, that I can never remember the name, I've got to look it up. I can never remember the name of this psychological effect, but there is a psychological effect. When you do customer satisfaction surveys, you increase customer satisfaction just by asking for their satisfaction levels.

Craig Irons: Interesting.

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, it's a well known and documented and usually kind of moderated kind of impact just in the fact. But the point of it is that when you ask someone how they are doing, you're showing that you care and they're more likely to be enamored with you if not, at least slightly more affectionate or at least to think a little bit better of you than they may have before. And so, yeah, absolutely, I mean, there's absolutely an effect I think a positive one when we treat others with respect, when we treat others with empathy, that that comes back around. And there's a number of different terms that we could use, whether it's universal psychic karma or just psychological sort of tests that can be made to show that. But yeah, it's absolutely, I think it's just common sense that that's going to happen.

Micheal Brenner: But I think more importantly, and the reason why I think mean people suck is counterintuitive, is that we can actually achieve the success we want to achieve by using empathy for others. And that's one of the reasons I wrote the book and titled it the way that I did is that you were always going to encounter people that are mean. But that doesn't have to get in the way of us accomplishing what we want. And it shouldn't take us off the course that we should be on of trying to treat others with respect and to understand... I tell the story of if you travel a lot, travelers love to complain about airline employees and I mean, airline employees probably have one of the worst jobs out there. So, let's have a little bit of empathy for them. Sometimes the person on the other end of the desk that is telling us our flight is canceled, oftentimes it's not his or her fault, it's the weather's fault and that's not their fault. And they probably had a hundred people yelling at them before they interacted with us.

Micheal Brenner: So let's have a little bit of empathy for people. So that's just one example that I like to talk about. But yeah, in the end it causes us, I think to be in a better position to be more successful and that sometimes isn't always intuitive.

Craig Irons: In the book and also over the course of this conversation, you've used the term counterintuitive a couple of times that empathy is a counterintuitive. In the book you call it the counterintuitive secret to getting what we want in life. And it's kind of a downer isn't it to think that there were people who really view empathy as a counterintuitive behavior, isn't it?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah. Yeah. Well I think, I think life in general teaches us hard knocks, teach us to take what you want at any cost. And that's why I think empathy has... We learn empathy as really young children and we kind of unlearn it as we grow up because of the rat race that life can be. And so that's why I think it's now become counterintuitive. I was talking to somebody early on in the ideation around the book that it really is the golden rule and how do you make a book interesting when all it is, is about being nice to people and following the golden rule. And the point I wanted to make is that it actually helps you to get what you want.

Micheal Brenner: It's not just about being a better person. And that's what's counterintuitive about it is, grabbing what you want might work in the short term, but it doesn't work in the longterm. And at what costs to your own sort of soul, if you will, to your own kind of conscience do those activities kind of take. And so that's why I think it's counterintuitive, but it's an effective way of getting what you want.

Craig Irons: And a book on the golden rule might not be as interesting to as many people as you would think. But boy, there sure are a lot of people who would need to read that book.

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, sure.

Craig Irons: When we think about a behavior like empathy, we may think of it as a leadership behavior which of course it is as we've talked about here today and you talk about in the book, but I wonder how many people also recognize the importance of treating their bosses with empathy. We expect bosses to extend empathy to us, but we don't always necessarily reciprocate that. And you talk about that in the book, right?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah, well, and as someone who, I think one thing I've learned is that I probably have an innate problem with authority. I'm happy to admit that it's an issue, but I think the point is it's one of the things that I talk about in the book, like I tell the story about one of the managers I struggled with who is now a friend of mine. And that person became a friend because I realized at some point over the course of a lunch or a business trip that, that I had kids and they had kids and we had some common struggles with family life and struggling work life balance and all those kinds of things. And started to see that manager that I struggled with as an employee, as a human being that was just like me. And that helped me to really understand and see them with a little bit more empathy.

Micheal Brenner: I also talk about how in most of the new jobs that I took, I would interview the stakeholders, I mentioned this before, but interview the stakeholders of your manager to get an understanding of the pressure that they're under and that can provide tremendous insight on what it takes to help them to achieve what they're trying to achieve. I also talk about you can have a cake, but you can't tell me how to bake it and analogy, which is something one of my managers also taught me. I had to learn at some point to stick up for myself and to say, "You want a cake and you can't tell me how much flour and sugar and eggs to use. You hired me because I know how to bake really good delicious cakes."

Micheal Brenner: And so I had to learn how to say, "Listen, I know you want a cake, but I know how to bake it. I have the recipe, I've tried it a thousand times and I'm going to deliver you a delicious cake and that should be good enough if the cake is what you really want." And so that's the analogy I try to use is we need to have that conversation with our manager at some point to say, what is it that you want? Now let me go figure out the best way to get that.

Craig Irons: And that's a great analogy because as we're recording this, it's approaching the lunch hour and all the discussion about cake is making me hungry.

Micheal Brenner: My stomach is growling as well.

Craig Irons: Michael, one more question I want to ask you, and this is a question we ask all of our guests on the Leadership 480 Podcast, can you share a moment of leadership that had an impact on you?

Micheal Brenner: Yeah. Yeah, I kind of referenced this earlier, but early on in my career I took a new job and I was working for this... I will say he was a guy. I think some of my best managers actually were women and I spent a lot of time in the book talking about kind of the female strength that I think shows itself in leadership that I think we all can learn from. But in this case, in this case, I was working for a guy that many people around the organization ran from I mean in fear. He was tough. He was sort of Northeast raised, not necessarily felt like he came from the mafia, but you got that sort of he was in control of every situation in every room that he was in. And when I interviewed and then started working with him and I found him actually to be extremely generous in his mentorship, but he was tough.

Micheal Brenner: And so I got this new job and he asked me, "Well, what are you going to do in this situation?" I was leading a team of folks. We had a new product initiative that had to launch. I had a big budget, a tight deadline. It didn't look like we were going to make it. And I mentioned to him, I thought we were going to do A, B, or C and he was like, "Yeah, okay, that sounds great, but I need you to present this as if you owned the business, I want to see a business plan. I want you to write it down in a word document." And so I went out and I remember I was up until about four in the morning one night finishing this document that I was going to present him the next day. And I was shocked at five, 10 years into my career no one had ever asked me to do that. It was something I had learned back in college but had never applied in the business world.

Micheal Brenner: And it was a lesson for me and it's why I devoted a whole chapter in the book to it that the skill of presenting a business case or in fact a formal business plan in any idea, a new business idea is so important. And it's just not something that we, I think hear a lot about. And so I think that along with the skill set of storytelling and the ability to learn how to kind of influence people through storytelling components, that was the big lesson that that leader, that individual had for me and I'll never forget it. And really appreciate the mentorship and the lesson that he taught me.

Craig Irons: That's really great stuff. And I'm sure all that really has come in handy as you've run your own business over the years.

Micheal Brenner: Yeah. And it's something that actually I do everyday. I mean, in the clients that I have, it's teaching them how to present the value they provide out to the world without talking about products and services, is both the business case for why us and also it's a big component in storytelling, making your customers the hero of the story is, I think the eighth chapter of the book. So those two things are something I use in my business every single day.

Craig Irons: Fantastic. Michael Brenner, the author of Mean People Suck: How Empathy Leads to Bigger Profits and a Better Life. Thanks so much for joining us, Michael. This has been a really terrific hour.

Micheal Brenner: Craig, thanks so much for having me.

Craig Irons: I'm Craig irons. Thank you for joining us. And I want to remind you to make every moment of leadership count.

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