Don't Undervalue Empathy As a Strategic Skill

August 1, 2010

Years ago,I skipped a dinner at the Washington Hilton during the Credit Union National Association’s (CUNA) Governmental Affairs Conference to slip into a small theater around the corner and catch a documentary film, “The Fog of War.”

The film was a long interview with Robert McNamara, former president of the World Bank, but best remembered as the architect of the Vietnam War when he served as secretary of defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. McNamara was haunted by the war and the role he played.

And following years of reflection, he attributed our political and military failures in Vietnam to one critical strategic mistake—namely our lack of empathy or the ability to imagine and understand the array of aspirations and motivations of our enemy. The design and implementation of our strategies were, thus, severely undermined.

Empathy is an emotional sense that’s deeply misunderstood and undervalued as a strategic skill. Often it’s mocked and considered a sign of weakness, when it’s actually a sign of strength. Empathy is notsympathy. Sometimes, but not always, it iscompassion. Strategy flows from the ability to understand how others think, feel, and, subsequently, act. At least that’s how it should be.

About the time I saw the McNamara documentary, a book, “The Art of War,” by Sun Tzu, was experiencing one of its periodic climbs to the top of the bestseller lists for business books. Tzu was a Chinese general who lived almost 3,000 years ago, and many business people continue to craft strategy based on the lessons he imparted on how to successfully wage war.

There are Web sites devoted solely to his teachings, including the importance of empathy. Tzu believed the way to defeat the enemy and win battles relied not only on understanding the enemy’s motivation, but also on a leader’s ability to make his troops feel empathy for the cause.

Empathy is hard work. As a result, making it the foundation of a business culture isn’t easy or something done with a snap of a finger. Credit unions often are criticized for failing to tailor their products and services so they can grab a larger share of wallet among more affluent households or demographic cohorts such as generation Y. There’s validity in that criticism, although it’s not uniformly applicable.

There are many very astute people running credit unions today, but what you find among the top performers is the great competitive strength of empathy. Tailoring products and services for specific audiences and marketing them as such requires more than cold demographic and economic analysis.

Regardless of size, winning credit unions work hard to:

• Understanda member’s financial needs from the member’s perspective, and design their product and service portfolios accordingly. If you fail to empathize with members, you’ll squander resources and fall well short of the goal to win your members’ hearts and minds and, thus, their loyalty and business.

• Createa strong emotional, psychological, and empathetic commitment to credit union philosophy among staff and volunteers. If you fail to build an empathetic sense of purpose among employees for your mission, you become just another place to collect a paycheck. This puts at risk the quality service that defines credit unions as being a step above banks.

Knowwhat the competition is thinking and doing. If you fail to empathize with competitors, you’ll find your credit union outflanked in the marketplace by more savvy and capable opponents.

Far too often, strategic plans are undercut by failing to understand members, or employees, or competitors. Trouble occurs when you fail with any of the three; disaster looms when you fail on all fronts.

I once read that the fears and desires within a single heart are complex, and if you multiply those hearts by the population of the world, you’ll sense how deep are the reserves of opportunity that remain untapped. All it takes is empathy.

MARK CONDONis senior vice president, business and consumer publishing, for the Credit Union National Association. Contact him at 608-231-4078 or at