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R. Karl Hebenstreit on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools

R. Karl Hebenstreit, Ph.D., PCC is an Executive Coach, International Speaker, Author, and Leadership/Team/Organization Development Consultant through his company, Perform & Function. As an avid proponent of increasing EQ in the leaders, teams, and organizations he works with, he truly understands the importance of empathy in the workplace. He was honored to be asked to provide his insights with The Industry Leaders on this topic about which he is passionate.

Can you start by telling us about your entrepreneurial journey? What led you to your current business, and what is it that sets your leadership style apart from others?

Technically, I started my company, Perform & Function, in 2001, after the first layoff of my career. For about a year, I provided Career Management consulting services under that umbrella, until I was fortunate to find full-time, benefited employment in my field of Human Resources. I amassed over 28 years of Human Resources, Leadership Development, and Organization Development experience in large national and multinational organizations (including Merck & Co., AT&T, Kaiser Permanente, EMC (now Dell), Bio-Rad, and Genentech/Roche, until I decided that I wanted to have a bigger and broader impact and work for a variety of leaders and organizations as an independent consultant. I rebooted Perform & Function in January 2022 and am jazzed to provide executive coaching and leadership/team/organization development consulting services to my varied clients that have come to me via my amazing network. What sets my leadership style apart from others is a focus on and combination of situational inclusivity, democratic participation, coaching, empathy, humor, practicality, and appropriate firmness/push to action, as needed!

You've been recognized for your focus on empathy and human connection within your organization. How did you come to realize the importance of these values in leadership, and how have they shaped the way you run your business?

My first lesson in the importance of empathy came fairly early in my career: While I was working at AT&T in a role that was new to me, 27-year old me somehow ended up in a marketing/business development role (for a Human Resources program) and was deemed the logical person to present our program at the annual Society for Human Resource Management conference in Minneapolis, MN. Off I went with my agenda of demonstrating and showcasing the virtues of our technology platform and hopefully attracting new organizations to join this “Talent Alliance” network. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of this amazing network of forward-thinking, employee development-centric international organizations and pay millions of dollars annually to do so? My first session was a disaster – live technology didn’t cooperate (this was 1998), people were not interested in a sales pitch, and they left in droves. I was devastated. Fortunately, I had one more session scheduled to redeem myself with a new audience. I approached the session with a totally different mindset, this time focusing on THEIR needs and what THEY wanted to take away from the session. I also set expectations up front about what my session would be so that they knew if this was right for them. Only a couple people left at the beginning since the topic would not have been of interest to them, and the rest stayed and engaged in a more meaningful session.

My lesson learned is that we don’t know what others really want/expect unless we ask them and that it’s imperative to set expectations up front so that everyone is aligned on what will happen. It’s akin to the Platinum Rule: treat others the way THEY want to be treated, and it’s a very inclusive and empathetic way of discovering, appreciating, and integrating the diversity that surrounds us and of which we may not be aware. And this was my first real lesson on the importance of empathizing with others and their potentially different needs.

Can you share an example of a situation where employing empathy and connection as business tools made a significant positive difference in your organization? What were the challenges and outcomes?

Being empathetic to the needs of team members and stakeholders/customers has always netted the best results for me. I can give you several examples: • Turned around a recruiting organization that was overworked, relied on overly-complicated/unautomated processes, and had a terrible service reputation with our customers by empathizing with the needs of our stakeholders in partnership with the needs of my team members. • Restructured an internal department of nationwide Recruiters and HR Generalists to go from a local/geographic structure to a hybrid where 1,000 key stakeholders (our employees) were supported by HR Generalists geographically and our clients were served by single points of contact nationwide (rather than having to work with ten different Recruiters, based on where the job was to be located), resulting in 20% improvement in customer satisfaction and record profitability. • Met with and listened to the needs, challenges, and aspirations of my entire team of fifteen, and was able to effect internal promotions and role assignments based on their and the business’s needs, resulting in improved customer satisfaction and increased employee engagement.

Empathy can often be misunderstood or oversimplified in a business context. How do you define it in your leadership practice, and how do you ensure that it's applied authentically?

Empathy involves being able to take on another person’s perspective, truly understand their situation through genuine curiosity and non-judgmental open-mindedness, and share/validate their feelings with authentic care. I’m pretty much a broken record in my leadership practice, reminding my clients to practice the Platinum Rule (“treating others the way THEY want to be treated”) and unlearn the more problematic, irrelevant, and self-centered Golden Rule (“treating others the way YOU want to be treated”). By approaching every situation and relationship from a point of genuine care and curiosity about the others’ experience, perspectives, insights, and needs, we put empathy into practice, strengthen relationships, foster psychological safety, inclusion, and belonging of diverse individuals, become more innovative, and make better, more robustly-informed decisions.

I also advocate for the use of the following checklist in empowering others, making decisions, and all communications: 1. (How) is this the right thing to do (for me, the team, the company)? 2. (How) will it impact other areas? What are the potential repercussions on others (colleagues/stakeholders/customers)? 3. (How) does it support our goals? Is it the most efficient option? How will it affect cost/budget? 4. Does this present an opportunity to pursue patent protection? Does the solution bring a unique value? 5. Is there data/research to support that this is the logical action to take? 6. What are my back-up plans if this fails? What are the consequences if this desired outcome isn’t achieved or if we don’t take any action? 7. Does this allow growth for/in the future? What are my other options? What are the likely positive outcomes? 8. Is this within my scope of authority/purview to control? 9. (How) does this fit within and affect the overall system? Is it sustainable?

Connection is not just about understanding others but also connecting with oneself. How do you maintain a balance between personal well-being and fostering connections with your team?

Yes, there’s definitely a danger to being overly empathic – an overused strength can become a weakness. I found this out the hard way early on in my career. I will share an example from my own experience about where too much empathy ended up literally making me sick. Early on in my career, I was hired to be a Recruiting & Staffing Manager (my first full-time, benefited role!) for a telecommunications research and development company. I spent my first year there hiring over 100 employees into the company. My second year there was drastically and 180-degrees different. The company was preparing for “commercialization” (to be bought by another company) and decided that the task of laying off hundreds of employees would fall on the Recruiting and Staffing Managers. I was voluntold to have one-on-one notification conversations with hundreds of employees, letting them know that their jobs were being eliminated and that they would be unemployed.

Some took the news very well, having “retired” or “transferring” from a related parent organization and having their service bridged, presenting them with a huge windfall of severance and taking them into a comfortable retirement. Others, earlier in their careers, single parents, those unready to retire, who needed a consistent paycheck, took it far less well. I overly empathized with them, to the point that, at 25 years old, I developed shingles. And that helped no one. Up until that point, I tested as an ENFJ on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory. Since then, I test as ENTJ, although I know that “Feeling” is my more dominant decision-making style. From this incident, I learned that I can be empathic to a point, and I can make sure that I do not let that affect my health. People know when you understand them and their situation – they can feel your empathy.

You can still be there for people, understand and feel their situation and point of view, and find a healthy, productive way forward. Since then, I make sure I don’t take on others’ feelings and emotions internally and personally – to put some personal boundaries in place to be able to empathize with them, while not overly identifying and absorbing those energies. I have learned that allowing a healthy level of emotional reaction is necessary when dealing with stress, conflict, or frustrating situations --- and that it’s unhealthy to stay there too long. After addressing these emotions in a healthy, productive way, and when the time is right, we must then move on to seeing what is possible now that this door is closed, and finally create an action plan to make it happen. That’s a combination of heart/feelings, head/thinking, and gut/action, in that order, and it’s the ideal sequence for ensuring we’re giving appropriate and optimal focus on each of these critical areas.

In terms of scalability, how do you maintain these human-centered values as your business grows? What strategies or tools have you found most effective?

The checklist above, which is based on the Enneagram, and the Enneagram model itself (which identifies and reminds us of the nine core motivations/needs that exist in all humans – the need to be right and do the right thing, the need to be helpful/liked/appreciated, the need to be successful/the best, the need to be different/unique/special/authentic, the need to be wise and understand, the need to be safe/comfortable/secure/belong, the need to be free/experience everything/avoid pain, the need for power/control/authority/strength, and the need for peace/harmony/balance) have been instrumental in the “stickiness” and continued, sustainable application of human-centered values as my and my clients’ businesses grow. Constantly reminding myself and them about thinking how situations and decisions are landing for others and how to ensure that their needs are being met and that they feel appreciated, heard, and included is always the best way forward.

For those who are new to leadership or are struggling to build empathy and connection within their teams, what practical advice can you offer? Are there any exercises or habits that can be cultivated?

Unlearning the Golden Rule (“treat others the way YOU want to be treated”) and adopting the Platinum Rule (“treat others the way THEY want to be treated”) is probably the most practical advice I can share on this topic. Leaders need to unlearn the pervasive “Golden Rule” that leads to self-serving, self-centered, and selfish ways of thinking, and instead adopt the “Platinum Rule,” and do the relationship-building work of finding out how others truly want to be treated. The ubiquitous Golden Rule has been touted from religion to hotel chain commercials as the way to approach life: “Treat people the way YOU want to be treated.” Unfortunately, the world doesn’t work that way, since not everyone wants to be treated the same way – we live in a world where people have different backgrounds, needs, ideologies, religious beliefs, political beliefs, values, and morals. And we have been institutionally taught that different is bad. Getting past this limiting belief structure to adopting a “Platinum Rule” mindset, where we “treat others the way THEY want to be treated,” requires a lot more work, interaction, and relationship-building to better understand the equally valuable and valid diverse perspectives and needs of others, and then taking it a step even further, to INTEGRATE those perspectives into our own ways of thinking. In this way, we have a broader, fuller, more robust, and inclusive picture of what’s really going on and what is really needed. A wonderful tool to achieving this mindset shift is the Enneagram. Leaders can first determine through which lens they view the world, then recognize that there are eight other equally important perspectives as well.

The goal is to integrate all nine (which already exist within us to some extent) so that we are as empathic and inclusive as possible in all of our interactions, decisions, and relationships. Also, approaching every situation with genuine curiosity to see what we don’t know, and to challenge our human implicit biases, is a great exercise in empathy-building. Ask yourself, “What if my way of thinking isn’t complete?” and “What other ways of approaching this are there?”

You've shared some truly insightful thoughts on leadership. How have these principles been reflected in your products or services, and what has been the response from your customers?

I recall the first time I ever heard a coaching client refer to me as “Dr. EQ” – I chuckled. Emotional intelligence and empathy are not destination points – like any type of leadership development, they are a continuous journey and aspirational state. There will be days when we’ll be in the flow and better at it; there will be others where our humanity gets the best of us and we show up less than our best. And that’s OK. As long as we forgive ourselves and learn from those experiences, and try harder to focus on being the most empathic leaders we can be in the future. Response has been resoundingly positive: I routinely receive feedback from my coaching clients and customers saying how they feel like they think completely differently after our sessions and workshops.

Finally, for our readers who are interested in learning more about your leadership philosophy or your business, where can they find more information or connect with you directly?


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