The recent upheaval at Uber offers a cautionary tale about what happens when founders don't prioritize empathy. The $69 billion company has clearly had success in its market, but its hesitation to address harassment accusations and reports of driver disputes suggested a lack of empathy toward its employees.
That's a shame because empathy lies at the heart of successful companies. Founders, in particular, must cultivate a strong sense of empathy because they’re beholden to so many people.
Employees, shareholders, customers -- everyone depends on them. And because empathy is a muscle one strengthens only over time, parents who want to raise entrepreneurial kids should begin developing that attribute now.
Fortunately, empathy is not a trait some are born with, and some not; everyone can practice -- and become good at -- understanding other people. Stepping into others' shoes begins with simple awareness, and parents are in the perfect position to model that for their kids.
During these summer months, when your kids are around more than usual, you'll get plenty of opportunities to model good behavior. So, keep in mind: The way you interact with the world shapes your children's habits; if you're attentive to other people, they will be, too.
Here's how to develop empathy among the future entrepreneurs in your family:
1. Make empathy a family habit.
You are your kids’ first teacher: Be mindful of the lessons you impart. When they fight with their siblings or friends, teach them to look at the argument from the other person's perspective. What might their brothers or sisters be feeling when they call them names or won’t share?
Do the same when you have conflicts with your spouse or relatives. If there’s a rift within the extended family, explain it to the kids while acknowledging the other side’s perspective.
In the business world, Costco modeled corporate empathy in an extraordinary way, following the 2008 economic collapse. Most companies were frantically searching for ways to cut costs, but Costco gave its employees a raise.
Rather than add to its workers' economic woes, it looked at the situation from where its employees stood and buoyed them during a difficult time. Today, Costco sees less than 10 percent turnover among its hourly team members.
2. Encourage emotional sharing.
Invite your kids to share not only what they’re feeling, but also why. Doing so builds emotional literacy and enables your children to communicate more effectively. Ever since our kids were young, my wife and I have made it a point to discuss our feelings openly and examine how we plan to act on those emotions.
We saw our children carry that practice into their own lives outside our home. When our son was 12, he stood up for a classmate who was being bullied, asking the young offender why he felt that he needed to act that way. Our son was not an especially outspoken type, but he told me he intervened because he didn't understand and couldn't accept why someone would treat a peer that way.
As kids grow into adults, they likely won't be sharing their deep feelings at work (founder or otherwise), but they will be sharing their ideas. Workers who feel comfortable offering input and pitching ideas to their managers are 54 percent more engaged than those who feel that they can’t approach their bosses, according to a Gallup study. Empathy is crucial for developing a healthy work environment, so the sooner future leaders learn to exercise it, the better.
3. Teach your kids to read others’ body language.
In a 20-year study from Duke and Penn State universities, researchers followed children from kindergarten through age 25 to observe how their interpersonal skills correlated with long-term success.
They concluded that those with strong social habits, such as empathy and conflict resolution, were more likely to finish college and land full-time jobs than their less socially adept peers.
Understanding body language is a core component of healthy interpersonal development, so look for opportunities to explain body cues to your kids. Use TV shows, movies and play-date interactions as teachable moments in this area.
Having company over is also a great time to practice paying attention to what people say through both their words and body language. When we had guests visit our home, my wife and I taught our kids to shake their hands and look them in the eye.
Our kids also paid attention to what a guest might need -- a glass of water or directions to the coat room -- rather than to scurry shyly away. As they grew older, that attentiveness helped them sense when someone’s feelings were going unspoken and to anticipate how to improve the situation.
Organizational change expert Manfred Kets de Vries wrote, “Empathy enhances our ability to receive and process information and to find solutions.” Nothing could be more important to future entrepreneurs, and parents have the power to instill this skill at a young age.
Teaching children empathy now lays the foundation for a successful, enriching and emotionally rewarding future. The best part? All kids can learn it -- they just need someone to teach them.