Why empathy offers big dividends

John Fanning reviews Mimi Nicklin’s new book, The Softening Edge, which shows how emotional intelligence can energise employee relations

Mimi Nicklin is a marketing specialist and business coach who has held senior strategic and creative positions in such cosmopolitan cities as London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Cape Town and Dubai, where she is now based. Her experience has led her to conclude that marketing communications is putting too much pressure on its employees.

In turn, it is leading to what Nicklin refers to as an empathy gap, a disconnection between what people running agencies regard as legitimate work objectives and the real lives of employees. Nicklin has written a book, The Softening Edge, which she hopes will enable marketing leaders to close the gap by reminding them that today’s younger employees are particularly vulnerable in this area.

The author is convinced that good leaders must first of all understand the concept of empathy. Secondly, she says they must learn to accept that younger employees have different values and requirements than previous generations. Third, and finally, they will have to acknowledge that they themselves may require training to enable them to respond to employee needs.

Marketers must learn how to listen: In her book, The Softening Edge, Mimi Nicklin says empathetic influence is now the most critical human and scientifically validated skillset. She insists that the ability to connect authentically has the power to not only change business environments, but also society at large. Empathy demands practice, patience and persistence to implement. Marketers who master it can future-proof and evolve their business.

Empathy is easily understood superficially but it requires practice, patience and a certain amount of persistence to implement. Nicklin uses the Zulu word ‘Ubuntu’ to expand on the subject. It is defined simply as ‘humanity towards others’ or ‘reciprocity towards others’. It is based on the need to look after people’s interests and to value their needs as human beings and not just as employees.

The traditional view of management was to assume that if employees carried out the tasks they were allotted, that was it; job done. But that old-fashioned view of management will not work in the 21st century, not in the world of marketing communications at any rate. An important reason for highlighting this issue right now is because of the changing nature of today’s workforce.

Nicklin believes that millennials and Gen Z’s have very different values and motivations than previous generations. In particular they reject the ‘greed is good’ and corporate ‘survival of the fittest’ mantras of the late 20th century when the neo-liberal political and economic agenda was in the ascendant. Younger employees now look for meaning as well as money – a better work-life balance.


The want to enjoy their leisure time and they expect that the transparency that accompanies the digital age to apply equally to their relationship with senior management. In short, they are aware of ‘the risk of losing their souls by becoming their roles’. These demands are also likely to be fueled by the experience of remote working during the prolonged lockdown and the increase in loneliness.

Nicklin regards it as a problem of pandemic proportions, even more serious than Covid-19. In spite of forever connecting, the reality is that too many people do not really feel connected; ‘we cycle in headphones, we travel in headphones, we study, read, commute and eat lunch in headphones’. The increasing number of solo households; 34 per cent in the EU, further emphasises the point.

Senior management must take these concerns much more seriously. It will require mastering the art of ‘active listening’, an art we all assume we have but which very few of us ever master or practise. Nicklin goes into some detail on how to listen better. If 80 per cent of communication is non-verbal then it even more essential than ever to understand what is being communicated through body language, facial gestures, the way people lean in or out and whether they look directly at you or sideways.


The author reminds us that it is a critical and conscientious skill to be able to know when to stop, or change tack, to be able to watch the room, when to show understanding and agreement and when to encourage more sharing. In spite of what we might like to think we are not good at this, it doesn’t come naturally and we could all do with some training. The author offers encouragement.

She says that by assuring us that the more we concentrate on ‘active listening’ the better we will become at it. She provides a useful tip to extract more useful information from talking to employees and indeed at client briefing sessions; keep interjecting, ‘tell me more’ and you might be surprised by the results. It might sound banal but developing the art of deep or active listening is anything but as it can transform our relationship with our employees and if you come to think of it; with everyone else.

John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School; john.fanning44@gmail.com







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