What the Airplane 'Knee Defender' Teaches Us About Human Empathy
Picture this: It’s been a long business trip, your back is aching, and you collapse into a cramped seat for your final flight home. There’s just one last email you need to send before you can shut down your laptop and close your eyes, so when you get home you can focus on cooking dinner and helping the kids with their homework.
And then this happens: Some jerk drops into the seat in front of you, slams his seat back and practically crushes your MacBook Air. You don’t have a Knee Defender, the controversial device that keeps the person in front of you from reclining their seat. Instead, you spend the rest of the trip with your head craned to the side, trying to see your keyboard so you can type an email with your laptop only open a few inches.
As GM of Desk.com and a mother of two boisterous boys, I think a lot about empathy in both my personal and professional lives. How do I make sure that caring for customers is part of our company DNA? How do I raise children that will at least look behind them for laptops or babies before reclining their seats?
You might think empathy is just a touchie-feelie hippie notion, but it’s also smart business. In today’s technology-driven, often impersonal world, empathy can be your competitive advantage. When you have an empathetic culture, employees have a better understanding of market needs. They build tighter relationships with customers and create products they want. And they work together better as a team. For a small business, this can mean exponentially faster growth.
Here’s how we make empathy part of our culture at Desk and some tips to help your own business leverage it for growth:
Building a small business depends on more than your management team and a few star performers. I make it a point to have a half-hour meeting with every new employee, whether in marketing, sales, engineering or our own customer service team. We’re growing like crazy, so it's a big commitment, but not only do I get great ideas for optimizing every part of our operation but it also sets the tone with new employees that everyone is important.
We also hold bi-monthly meetings when we bring our entire team together. At each meeting we ask five people -- at random -- to share a fun fact. We’ve learned that one of our employees used to run a Turkish hotel, one can do a Rubik’s cube in under a minute and one used to model -- shirtless -- for Abercrombie and Fitch. Perhaps this is too much information sometimes, but our employees see each other as unique people, not just cogs in the machine, and work more creatively and collaboratively together.
Do something nice.
Child-rearing experts say that if you want your children to grow up to be nice people, you need to make doing nice things a priority. Each night at dinner, you should have a discussion with your family about the nice things that other people have done for you that day and what you have done for others.
You can also set the example at your company with acts of kindness. Throw a baby shower. Order cake for birthdays. Celebrate with champagne when a big deal is closed. Make volunteering a part of your culture. At Desk we’ve chosen two main charities to support -- the Children’s Discovery Museum and Stop Hunger Now -- and employees are encouraged to help out either individually or as a team. The result? A more thoughtful, caring team.
Give lots of carrots.
When you’re moving fast, it’s easy to forget to say thanks, so our management team makes it a point to say “awesome!” and appreciate everything our employees do. We have a lean team that needs to get a lot done in a small amount of time and we try to make sure they know that we are grateful for their hard work every step of the way.
It’s not that we praise everything. Make no mistake, my employees are well aware when they fall short of expectations. But we always, always appreciate the effort they put into things. And trust me, they find it much more motivating than the stick.
Hire empathetic people.
You can tell a lot about a person by the way they recline their seat on the bus or airplane. Do they stay upright for the duration of the trip so they don’t squish the people behind them? Or do they slam their seat back as far as it will go as soon as they get onboard? Do they glance apologetically at the person behind them as they slowly lean back? Do they at least check for small children or fragile computers behind them before leaning back?
It’s easier to hire empathetic people and teach your product than it is to hire product experts and teach empathy. It’s especially important when you are staffing your customer-service team. Next time you’re interviewing for a customer-service agent, try asking them whether they recline their seat on an airplane. Their answer will tell you a lot.
Give it a try. Companies such as Apple and Unilever show that empathy can be a competitive advantage. Who knows, maybe if we all do it there wouldn’t even be a need for a Knee Defender.