Empathy_Body.jpgby Erin McDermott.


Marilyn Schlossbach faced the worst of Hurricane Sandy and then some. When the Category 4 storm walloped the New Jersey shore last October, it caused tremendous damage to her budding restaurant empire, destroying three locations in Asbury Park and imperiling the livelihood of some 150 employees. Wind, water, and waves knocked out her home above one location, the Labrador Lounge, in badly damaged Normandy Beach for five months. And there was another huge life event to manage: Schlossbach also had four-month-old twin daughters.


Fighting red tape and displacement, salvage, reconstruction, and exhaustion, Schlossbach’s restaurants reopened this summer. When others might have given up, she’s back up and running. “We’ve been though a really stressful year,” Schlossbach adds. “But in the end, I think we’ll be stronger for it.”


And these days, when members of her storm-stressed crews start getting frustrated in their bustling kitchens and dining rooms, Schlossbach tries her own approach to calm them.


“I say to my staff  ‘Go to your sad place, not your angry place’ in times of stress or turmoil. Because when you see an angry person coming at you, you run away. When a sad person comes at you, you embrace them—and you want to help them.”


In the rush of an all-consuming business, it’s easy to lose a connection with those who are in the trenches making the dream of your business happen. But the ability to put yourself in your employees’ shoes is crucial to your success. It’s also key to knowing what motivates staffers to perform better and what could win you their undying loyalty.


Empathy_PQ.jpgScience may explain some of what employers face. In a study that recently made headlines, researchers in Canada pinpointed how an individual’s sense of power alters the way the brain operates. In experiments, those who were made to feel powerless had portions of their brains linked to empathy light up during scan. At the same time, test subjects who were made to feel powerful had a very low signal coming from that region.


Syd Hoffman says she gave her full-time employees a paid half-day off each week after they reached five years at her private elementary-school startup in Arizona. A working mom and high-school math teacher herself, she empathized with her staffers’ busy lives, which created a happier atmosphere.

“It was the best thing I ever did,” Hoffman says. “People scheduled all their errands, appointments and repairs for the morning or afternoon. They worked really hard the other 4.5 days, smiled, and were very loyal to the company.”

For any entrepreneur, empathy is an imperative when it comes to customers, too. In Dev Patnaik’s 2009 bestseller Wired to Care, the business strategist suggests the payoff can be significant when a company can fully understand what problems its clients have and hear the feedback needed to get to a marketable solution. He cites the example of Harley-Davidson, which has gone so far as to hire customers as full-time employees—just to tap into that knowledge and deep emotional tie. Back at the Jersey shore, Schlossbach’s restaurants made it through a busy summer, with some patched-up lumber salvaged from structures destroyed by Sandy.

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