How to Fix the Tech Industry’s Empathy Problem

Tech entrepreneurs often tell Maëlle Gavet that empathy is a weakness in business–that kindness gets in the way of making tough decisions, or that bruised egos and hurt feelings are a necessary cost to changing the world.

Gavet couldn’t disagree more. “If you define corporate empathy as the ability of a company and its leadership to understand what’s happening in the world around them–and how their decisions impact people inside and outside the company–I think you actually have a better company,” said the 42-year-old tech executive, speaker, and author during a roundtable discussion and Q&A at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on Wednesday.

And she should know: A former Priceline executive and CEO of Ozon, Russia’s version of Amazon, Gavet wrote a book on corporate empathy, Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It, published last Tuesday. Plenty of tech companies, she said, work hard to take care of their employees–and plenty have empathetic people working for them. None of that is enough, she argued: “It has to include your customers, and it has to include your local community and your community at large.”

Gavet, who most recently served as the chief operating officer at New York City-based real estate startup Compass, pointed to Facebook as the epitome of a unempathetic company, because of its seeming inability to make decisions that benefit anyone other than Facebook itself. An inverse example, she said, is Nike, which used employee feedback to launch a line of athletic maternity clothes last month–and quickly sold out.

“Empathy and being human-centric is actually good for business,” Gavet said. “I’m a capitalist. I’m not telling all these companies to become nonprofits. I’m just saying that if you want to have a company that’s still going to be around 20, 50, 100 years from now, you have to take into account the well-being of the world you rely on.”

Such a transformation probably won’t happen overnight. Still, Gavet recommended three actions for any company–tech or otherwise–looking to improve:

1. Rewrite your job descriptions.

Empathy requires access to a diverse set of life experiences, and standard job descriptions tend to attract the same types of job candidates. Work to attract candidates who can talk to others, understand varying points of view, and translate that into their work–whether they’re designers, engineers, or anything in between.

2. Reward employees for both behavior and results.

Most companies, Gavet said, issue promotions or raises purely on the basis of results–allowing jerks to rise through the ranks. “Your behavior matters,” she noted. “I’m continually shocked by the number of companies that reward employees exclusively on results.”

3. Institute ethical oversight.

At universities, research projects are governed by ethics oversight boards–yet no such requirements exist in the business world. “When an engineer launches a test, that should be discussed with someone who isn’t looking at it from a pure code perspective,” Gavet said. “Is it ethical? Should we actually be testing that?”

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