How Empathy Maps Can Change the Way You Lead


If I could go back in time and do it all over again, part of me wishes that I would have pursued a degree in Marketing.

I love the idea of creating, pulling ideas out of "blue sky" meetings and turning them into campaign slogans, and climbing into the head of Joe and Jane consumer and trying to think like they do so we can build products and services that will not only be useful to them, but will connect with them in a way that would make them lifetime users of our services.

Maybe it's that interest in Marketing that helps me disrupt what is going on over in the leadership and people sides of business (the side of the business that I found myself gravitating to over 20 years ago), but I often finding myself reading marketing blogs and articles and trying to find ways to hack their processes and philosophy for leadership purposes. I mean, when you really think about it, as leaders (especially servant leaders) our customer is our employees - our business partners. Imagine if we threw the money, time and attention at our "internal" customers that we threw at our "external" customers! I continue to argue that if you spent half of your corporate marketing budget on training, you would get twice the return on customer satisfaction and repeat business than you would if you spent the entire budget on pure marketing tactics.

But, I digress.

The reason for my post tonight is to share with you a concept that has been well known in the marketing and software design worlds, that we have been using for some time at Servant Leadership Centre of Canada. It's called empathy mapping.

So....what's Empathy Again?

Glad you asked.

It's an important discussion because there are those of us who aren't familiar with the distinction between empathy and sympathy. Before we go any further on this, lets make sure that we are all on the same page with the definition and why its so important to leading with a servant heart.

Empathy actually consists of two parts - the ability for the empathizer to identify the feelings, thoughts, emotions and actions of another person, and the ability to feel those thoughts, feelings and emotions vicariously. Sympathy is feeling something for someone, while empathy is feeling it with them.

There is an emotional and psychological investment that has to be made by the individual sympathizing with the individual feeling the emotions, making empathy something more than just an acknowledgement of anothers feelings. Another significant attribute is that empathy can allow an individual to feel both joy and sorrow with another, where as sympathy is based purely on acknowledgement of one's pain.

The difference may seem subtle, but the impact is very distinct, especially when you are seeking to gain the trust of others and estalish a common bond. Your investment in their feelings shows deep compassion and not only acknowledgement, but awareness of their feelings and emotions.

This short video by Bene Brown basically nails the difference between Empathy and Sympathy in this short YouTube video...

Empathy Mapping And Empathetic Design

Marketing departments have long since figured out what we in the HR and leadership worlds continue to struggle to shake for some reason - data, analytics and sometimes even known fact of past customer behaviour don't define the behaviour of future customer behaviour, and more importantly, don't establish an emotional connection between the end user and the product. Its only when we start to put ourselves in the position of others and see what they see, feel what they feel, and do what they do, do products and services become move beyond a transactional relationship with the end consumer to brand loyalty.

For years now, marketing analysts have deplyed empathetic design methedologies that not only explore the current needs of consumers and how to best meet them, when its done properly they (get this) can actually also identify the needs of consumers before they become mainstream issues and design solutions for them so they can be first to market!

Brilliant right?!

So.....the question I keep asking myself is this one - why aren't our organizations implementing empathetic design with their own people? Reaching out to understand what they think, how they feel, what they do and how they act in an attempt to better meet their needs (improving engagement and overall workplace happiness, which leads to increased prouctivity and.....wait for it......better corporate results). And IMAGINE if leaders leveraged that same process to better understand people trends and adapt their systems and processes to proactively act on them to stay ahead of the trend. That's Google level culture development people.

Empathy mapping is a good place for us to start our empathetic leadership design

We learned about this trick years ago and have been using it in our leadership practices and workshops for some time now, and want to share it with our friends and fellow servant leaders. Its a tool that marketing and software design organizations have been using to better understand their end users in developing systems and services, and its called empathy mapping.

Empathy mapping comes in a number of different formats, but all of them usually include the use of a persona empathy map. These maps are usually broken into 4 quadrants and some have space on the bottom or sides (or both) for people to capture their findings as a way to better understand their customer.

We've created our own persona map below, and have broken our quadrants into four key sections (Think, Feel, Say and Do) and have added a section along the right hand side for "a-ha!" moments, as well as a section to better understand individuals motivations (this is for advanced sessions only- for now, we'll focus on the quadrants and the insights area).


How We Use An Empathy Map

We've used empathy maps when dealing with individual team members, teams or even internal customers of ours to better understand what they are thinking and feeling so that we can adjust our approach with them, not to ensure that we are meeting our needs, but rather to better meet theirs. We use them in a couple of different ways- we've designed larger "wall poster" versions of the map so that we can work with our leadership teams when we collaboratively try to address the needs of a particular individual or segment of our team, but we've also created 8 x 10 versions of the map so that when we are working through an interpersonal issue or meeting with an individual on an one on one basis, we can quickly take an empathy map out of a folder or drawer and spend some time reflecting on what the individual we are meeting with may be thinking, feeling, doing and saying. This practice helps us better frame our discussion and gives us some perspective on what an individual might be "bringing" to the meeting with them, and helps us better prepare to meet some of their unique needs.

I would recommend trying both practices if you can. I have found the 8 x 10 version to be incredibly insightful and grounding, especially when dealing with difficult conversations that tend to be emotional and at times stressful for one or both of us.

How They Work

Whether you are doing this on your own or in a group, the process remains relatively the same. Write the name of the individual, team or team segment on the top of the page, and begin to put yourself in their shoes. Spend some time asking yourself or your team about the individual you are seeking to better understand questions like:

How do they think about their fears and hopes?

What do they hear when others talk about you or your leadership team?

What do they see when they see you or your leadership team as a leader(s)? What's your team's culture like through their eyes?

What do they say or feel when they are working in your team's culture? In private or public?

Are they able to be fully included in your workplace culture? Is there a part of themselves that they can't bring to work with them? How does that make them feel?

Is being a part of your team a positive or negative experience for them?

What does a day look like in their world? Before they come into work? After work?

Some Things To Think About

The trick to successfully using empathy mapping comes down to a couple of tricks that you need to be aware of.

1. You may need to role play a bit. Don't be afraid of it.

Putting yourself in someone else's shoes is a bit of a stretching exercise, but one that will be well worth it if you are able to get there. Take a few risks in your own mind and really try to place yourself in the situation of the person you are seeking to understand.

2. Don't cheat.

If you don't know the answer, don't assume- seek to find the real answer. Use only what you KNOW to build your empathy map, and use the gaps that you have in your map as a way of building stronger connections with the individual you seek to understand.

3. Capture insights as you go along.

Don't wait to write your "a-ha's" at the end of the process. Learn someting about your persona, write it down immediately so you don't lose it. At the end of the process, step back and take a look at the real-time insights and ask yourself if there are common themes running through them. If you are lucky, you may discover other insights that you would have never found through a re-cap process.

Now Its Your Turn!

Try adding empathy mapping to your servant leader's toolbox and see if it helps you gain a greater level of understanding and empathy of your people and your team. You may find that there are opportunities for growth and development for both you and your team through the process, and that it may lead you down a road of opportunity to help heal others or use your foresight to clear a potential barrier for others you weren't even aware existed.

You've got all you need to start the process - give it a try!

Looking for a downloadable version of the Servant Leadership Centre of Canada empathy map? Here it is!