Do you know the Muffin Man?

Muffin Sit back and let me tell you a story: a large professional services firm, let’s call them Firm A, once went up for a large job at the Client. Firm A, which had good reason to think a lot of itself, had excellent qualifications for the work and gave, what they didn’t doubt was a winning pitch. Then, they sat back, waiting for the call that would certainly anoint them as the winning bid.

A week later they got the call; the other firm, their bitter, but undoubtedly lesser, rival Firm B had won the bid. Confusion reigned at Firm A. How could this have happened? What did they do wrong? They called the Client and did a postmortem. The Client told them that they had done nothing wrong, their pitch was as compelling and as convincing as they thought it had been. So what happened? To the amazement and bewilderment of Firm A they were told, “You were great, and we have no doubt that you would have done a fantastic job, but they brought muffins.”

Muffins! What did the Client mean, “They brought muffins”? It turned out that the Client had very recently moved offices. They hadn’t unpacked all their boxes yet and people’s desks were still in state of disarray. Firm B had realized that this meant that people probably couldn’t find their coffee mugs, or even the coffee machine and, on the day of their pitch, had brought coffee and muffins for everyone in the office. They had thought about what it must be liked to be the employees of the Client, had put themselves in their shoes and had performed a relatively cheap and minor act that had proved to the Client that Firm B had the emotional intelligence necessary to really understand what the Client needed. The Client had decided that there was little enough between the pitches of Firm A and B that, all other things being equal, they were giving the bid to the company that had the institutional empathy to feel the Client’s pain.

Much as it sounds as if this story is apocryphal, I can assure you that it is true. Not only is it true, but it’s a harbinger of an increasing trend in Corporate America: emotional intelligence, the ability to monitor your own feelings and the feelings of others and to guide your behavior accordingly, and a term long discussed in academic psychology circles, is suddenly all the rage in corporate America. Whether it’s Zappos, the online shoe retailer, with their extreme customer service policy that empowers every representative to do whatever it takes to make the customer happy, or Southwest Airlines that similarly prides itself on encouraging all of its employees to demonstrate a level of empathy and concern not normally associated with airline travel, the idea of getting in touch with feelings is in fashion.

As we try to shift the US economy to a new, 21st century paradigm, one where innovation is front and center, emotional intelligence will be an increasingly important skill, helping to propel forward every kind of innovation from product to service innovation. Understanding a customer’s pain is the first step to innovating a product that will alleviate that pain. Zappos understood that an online shopper’s pain is returning items. Intuitively, shoes would seem to be one of the products least conducive to online retail; you have to try shoes on to see if they fit and are comfortable. However, if it was as easy, if not easier to return a pair of shoes bought online as ones bought in a store and that pain could be alleviated, then suddenly shoe shoppers could be free to enjoy all the benefits of online shopping. Zappos has a policy that it will take back any item within 365 days of delivery and will also pay for the return shipping. They make this return shipping very simple and they have customer service representatives who are empowered to smooth over any bumps along the way. As the company’s Marketing Chief recently said, “Customer Service is the New Marketing!” and emotional intelligence is the new killer app for customer service.

Which, of course, leads to my question: are we encouraging emotional intelligence in our children? It goes without saying, or at least it should, that most parents and schools try to encourage children to be good sharers and kind friends. But is this enough? As I’ve discussed before, there seems to be no doubt that the jobs that traditionally were thought of as stable, secure, well-paying white collar employment are increasingly being outsourced or automated. From IT to accounting, these jobs are disappearing from the US and Western Europe at an alarming pace. Daniel Pink posits in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, that there are six right-brained directed “senses” which are essential to the kinds of creativity and innovation increasingly necessary in the 21st century. These are: design, story, play, meaning, empathy, symphony. I’ve talked in detail in previous posts about the importance of design, story and play and how, I believe at least, that these are not getting the air time they need to in the curricula of most schools today. Now let’s look at empathy, a key component of emotional intelligence.

I know, I know, schools barely have time to teach math and reading and now they’re supposed to have units on empathy? I’m not saying that. What I am saying is that not everyone is naturally empathetic, and it would seem likely that it is possible to teach people to be at least more so than they already are in the context of other subjects. If this is a trait that is increasingly being valued in the workplace, perhaps we should think about not just leaving it up to chance as to whether or not it is part of a child’s education.

Sometimes I worry that I’m a broken record on the topic of testing, but here I go again: if the focus of education is not much more than cramming facts and figures into a child’s head so they can be enumerated through for the purpose of taking a test, then what room is there in a school day to ask a child to try to put themselves in the shoes of the Ancient Greeks, or the Native Americans, or the Jews in Nazi Germany? Trying to understand the point of view of the players in world history, of the players in current events, of the characters in a work of fiction is to encourage children to be empathetic, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Last semester, my daughter learned about Ancient Greek myths. She and her classmates were encouraged to write skits to retell the stories of the various gods. My daughter and her friend wrote a play called “Medusa Makeover,” set in a modern-day beauty parlor. They also did a unit about the Mayans in which, through various activities, including creating Powerpoint presentations that told Mayan-like myths that they created, they gained an understanding about why the Mayans might have written the stories they did. In both cases, they were learning about much more than just the facts; they were learning to see these ancient stories from a different point-of-view. Learning about art, music, literature, history through the eyes of the protagonists is about so much more than memorizing facts and figures.

Emotional intelligence requires the ability to look at an issue from multiple perspectives. This kind of learning benefits from a more holistic approach than is commonly used in schools, a truly integrated curriculum. For example, learning about the Amazon rain forest can be a theme that is threaded through art, science, social studies, reading, music, even math; each subject providing a different perspective on the topic and reinforcing what is learned in the other classes.

Emotional intelligence in children is no longer just a case of lowering the incidence of bullying, though of course, that is a likely end result. Ultimately, a company is only as emotionally intelligent as the sum of its employees. Therefore, as companies try to boost their emotional intelligence to connect with customers, it would seem to me that this will be an increasingly valuable job skill. Are we educating our children accordingly?

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