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Leadership, Empathy and Engagement: Thoughts from the Retail Excellence Ireland Symposium

Posted by Emma Henderson on 26 September 2014
Leadership, empathy and engagement: thoughts from the Retail Excellence Ireland Symposium

NCI President Dr. Phillip Matthews spoke at this recent event on the power of empathy to inspire and support performance.

"The field of neuroscience is offering new insights into how our brains function and the role that emotions play in our daily lives. Studies on patients with severe brain trauma to areas of the brain that manage our emotions have revealed that their ability to make decisions is often completely compromised. We now know that decision-making is a highly emotional process.

We also know that customer engagement is an emotional attachment between the customer and the brand; and from market research we know that engaged customers have a positive impact on revenue, profitability and retention. The lesson for retailers is that the more we can engage our customers emotionally, the higher level of engagement we will achieve and that is good for business.

So this poses one big question:
How can we expect our people to engage customers emotionally if we don’t engage our people emotionally? When we go shopping we don’t want to witness disengaged, sullen, staff. We want them to be alert to our needs and ready to help.

But how do we engage our staff emotionally without losing the ability to manage effectively; to give clear direction and correction when needed; we can’t be nice all the time.

Skilled leaders have the ability to manage what Sonia Nevis et al* refer to as “the strategic and intimate interactions”. Highly engaging leaders create a balance between strategic and intimate interactions.

Strategic interactions are those that are focused purely on the job that needs to be done, and can be characterised by the ability of all in the hierarchical system to be abrupt, intrusive or bold in the service of economy of time; whereas intimate interactions are characterised (among other things) by expressions of interest in others, that are perceived by the other as sincere.

Strategic interactions, getting things done through managing and directing people, often in frenetic circumstances, are much more effective when relationships have a history of some intimate interactions. In other words: if leaders are purely strategic and directive with their people, if they haven’t invested time in sincere intimate interactions they will not achieve emotional engagement with their staff.  How can we then expect them to achieve emotional engagement with our customers?

Highly engaging leaders are those that have high levels of emotional intelligence and in particular, high levels of empathy. What retail needs is Empathic Leadership.

Since my rugby playing days I have been looking for real meaning, beyond the cliché or the ‘motivational speech’, around what business can learn from sport. And for me this is it:

Sports team managers, coaches, captains invest huge time in intimate interactions; they have to. The world of sport is one in which you have to perform at your best all the time and where there is no hiding from the video analysis, where feedback is brutal and instantaneous, especially in the heat of battle. If a coach hasn’t laid a solid foundation of intimate interactions leading to emotional engagement, she/he will simply not maintain motivation in his/her players.

So the message for retail is simple. If we want to engage our customers emotionally, then we need empathic leaders who can balance the strategic and the intimate. But more than that, we need to develop an organisational culture that is empathic with its people.

"You’ve heard of retail therapy...I give you RETAIL EMPATHY."

If you want to develop your management skills, have you considered the MSc in Management or MBA at National College of Ireland?

*Nevis, Backman & Nevis. 2003. Connecting Strategic and Intimate Interactions: The Need for Balance. Gestalt Review 2 (2): 134-146.

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