Right now, in conference rooms around the world, leaders are having countless conversations about how to improve employee engagement.

What they might not realize is that the answer is right in front of them: It's an empty chair.

In fact, that empty chair, a technique invented by Sears (back when the company was a retailing pioneer) and adopted by today's retailing powerhouse Amazon, holds the key to transforming engagement in your organization.

At Amazon, the chair is about the customer. As Daniel H. Pink explains in his book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, when Amazon holds important meetings, people at the company keep one chair empty. 

"It's there to remind those assembled who's really the most important person in the room: the customer," writes Pink. "Seeing it encourages meeting attendees to take the perspective of that invisible but essential person. What's going through her mind? What are her desires and concerns? What would she think of the ideas we're putting forward?"

Other smart companies understand why it's so important to put the customer at the center of your thinking. In fact, there's a methodology called design thinking, coined back in 2003 by IDEO co-founder David Kelley, which has become synonymous with taking a user-centric approach to creating products and services.

Here's AirBnB co-founder Joe Gebbia on applying that approach: "To me, design thinking is another way of saying 'empathize with the customer.' It's consideration for the person you're designing for. That's all it is. What it means is you're going to spend the time to understand of the needs of the person you're designing for such that you can create something that's valuable to them."

The empty chair's link to employee engagement.

Of course, employees are people too. So if your objective is to more deeply engage your people, you should use the empty chair--and another technique I'll explain in a moment--to represent them. That way, you bring employees' perspective into the room when you are developing ways to reach and motivate your team members.

These techniques are based on a powerful social psychology principle called "perspective-taking." Pink explains: "When confronted with an unusual or complex situation involving other people, how do we make sense of what is going on? Do we examine it from only our own point of view? Or do we have the capability to step outside [our] own experience and imagine the emotions, perceptions, and motivations of another?"

Writes Pink: "Perspective-taking is at the heart of... moving others today. The ability to move people now depends... on understanding another person's perspective, getting inside his head, and seeing the world through his eyes."

Another effective way of understanding employees.

The second method to bring employees into the room is to create employee profiles. In marketing, a "customer profile" can be defined as "A precise description of the characteristics of buyers for a specific product or service."

Why are profiles valuable to product developers and marketers? Because they go beyond dry data to bring customers to life. When you can imagine the people you're trying to reach--with all their desires and preferences and quirks--you can do a better job of giving them what they need. Profiles help us move from thinking of employees abstractly to seeing them as living, breathing people.

My firm has used profiles in planning sessions with human resources and communicators. For example, to develop an employee value proposition, we created profiles of typical employees--a manufacturing worker, a sales representative, an IT specialist--and asked participants to look at the company from our profiles' perspectives. This exercise helped those in the room get outside of their own heads and think about the topic from the employee point of view.

As Pink puts it, "Attuning yourself to others--exiting your own perspective and entering theirs--is essential to moving others. One smart, easy, and effective way to get inside people's heads is to climb onto their chairs."

Published on: Feb 5, 2019
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