How Empathy Creates Thoughtful Connection with Damon Brown

4 Min Read
By Jaagriti Sharma
May 14, 2021

Welcome to AllVoices Experts, a series discussing emerging trends and technologies shaping the Future of Work. We’re on a mission to create safe, happy, and healthy workplaces for all, and we’re excited to learn from experts who share our mission.

Damon Brown helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional creatives bloom. He co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr and led it to acquisition within a year, all while being the primary caretaker of his infant first son. He now guides others through his consulting/coaching, his M/W/F #BringYourWorth show, and his Inc.com column. Damon is the author of the best-selling series The Ultimate Bite-Sized Entrepreneur. His latest book is Build From Now: How to Know Your Power, See Your Abundance & Nourish the World. Take his free best creative resources quiz at http://www.buildfromnowquiz.com and subscribe to his free #BringYourWorth program

Damon, in your opinion, how has the future of work changed over the past year? 

Big question! I think it comes down to two categories: Representation and resources. 

First, we’re seeing people bringing their whole selves to work – and leaders are being forced to see whole employees. As I mentioned during our interview, my career truly began to bloom just as I became a father and the primary caregiver of my partner and me’s baby. I’m doing founder calls, launching startups, and doing journalism interviews while rocking my kid to sleep! I am proud of all my roles, but I did have to cut through shame and guilt because I didn’t have the privilege to “keep my work at work.” They were intertwined. But, as we learned during the pandemic, they were always intertwined – we just pretended they weren’t. And now we are Zooming into people’s homes. The personal needs, the disparity of support, the reality of each and every one of our lives cannot be denied now. And now that guilt, shame, and denial must be confronted by all of us.

Second, we’re realizing the different resources we all have. In my recent TED Talk, I share one example of “pandemic time”: Some people I know had a ridiculous amount of time available to pursue their dreams and come up with new ones. Most, like myself, felt the squeeze of taking care of their loved ones, running their businesses, and keeping their head above water while having less time than ever. From maternal and paternal support to health care gaps, these issues have always been present. It’s why I wrote Build From Now: If leaders aren’t recognizing the diverse needs of whom they serve among their employees, customers, and communities after 2020, then it’s a clear signal that we should be building our own table as much as possible. I’ve advocated it well before the pandemic, but now I think the path is clearer than ever. 

How do you define empathy? 

Giving love and support when you don’t have to, especially when you don’t have to, for situations you can’t possibly understand.

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? 

Sympathy is emotional. Unfortunately, I’ve found that it doesn’t elicit change. In its worst form, it can be patronizing.  

Empathy is perspective. I honor your POV, see how you may be having a challenge, and recognize that I may not have that same path because of my own privilege, luck, or circumstances. And empathy, unlike sympathy, makes me more likely to use my privilege, luck, or circumstances to level the playing ground for you.

What are some examples of how to incorporate empathy at work? 

It is giving a co-worker, employee, or even a leader space when you know they or their community may be going through a time of pain specific to them. It is checking in and opening dialog with others, so you don’t have to “create empathy” when something happens, but build on the already established relationship. 

How do you see leaders expressing more empathy in the workplace, manifesting in a company’s culture? 

To paraphrase others, black or pink squares on your social media platform for a week isn’t exactly empathy. At worst, it is performative solidarity. 

The secret is that you can’t create a strong empathetic culture after something happens. As I shared with our podcast discussion, we already know what Ben & Jerry stands for, just as we know what Uber stands for. You see them, you feel them! And my family spends our money appropriately based on our values.

And from my research as a consultant and coach, I’ve found that brands often reflect their corporate culture – whether intentional or not.

Transforming into a more empathetic culture is an interplay between the people leading, the community being served, and the stewards executing the service. If the people leading approve predatory and unethical consumer treatment, then why would the stewards feel emotionally safe enough to be vocal about their unique needs in the workplace? 

Tell us about how managers need to rethink how they lead their individual team. 

Each person has unique resources. Not strengths, but resources. My Build From Now coaching framework comes down to four resources: Focus, Agility, Time, and Energy. Your framework may be different based on your business culture.

Support the individuals within the team based on their resources and build them up to maximize those resources, so they become strengths for the team at large.

How can HR and People teams think about creating opportunities for thoughtful connection among their employees? What does intentional employee engagement look like?  

I’ve talked with leaders who are making a positive culture and found at least one commonality: They look at employee engagement as a continual conversation. They connect with their employees when profit is great or weak; when they need performance improvement, at peak output, or doing nothing special at all, whether they need something from them or not. 

It is relational, not transactional. A mistake we make is having a pseudo-empathetic discussion when we’re concerned about someone underperforming. Maybe if we talk about this thing that’s destroying their community, then they can get it off their chest and, you know, get back to work? As I broke down in Bring Your Worth, people can feel, if not immediately recognize your intention. Genuine empathy is about providing support, especially when you’re not expecting to get anything from others out of it.

How can companies measure the effectiveness of creating thoughtful connections in their organization? 

As of our late, dramatic times, there is a simple metric: The less contorting you need to do during a potential community-impacting event, the better understanding you may have established through your company. You don’t need to tell people that Black Lives Matter – you may remind them of your stance, but you don’t need to convince your employees, your leadership, your community that your perspective is strong. They see it already in how you spend your profit, put in your time, and create empathetic dialogs within your culture.

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