Maria Ross

Building an empathetic brand at the office

16 Feb 2020   |   Culture Leadership

Maria Ross

Building an empathetic brand at the office

16 Feb 2020   |   Culture Leadership

What are we talking about

Building empathy at work.

Why is building empathy at work important for the future of work?

Empathy is consistently one of the highest rated skills required for workers in the future. In a world where we accept differences and work towards a common good, we must be able to understand more of where others are coming from.

What did Maria Ross teach us about empathy at work?

If we can’t master empathy at work, what hope do we have in other realms of society? These are people in our direct sphere of influence. Work is the perfect place to practice empathy and learn how to get this right.

Veneer empathy includes things like posters on the wall and marketing slogans that don’t reflect the true values of the company. This won’t cut it anymore. Employees and consumers can see right through it and figure out who is fake and who really means it.

Maria talks though whether or not you can “policy” your way to a more empathetic company. Is it possible to force people to be more empathetic through rules at work? How far can these go? There’s a lot to be said, but Maria adds, “It doesn’t matter what gets you to the gym”.

Since empathy is such an important skill to consider, we need to start adding it to our recruiting assessments and employee reviews.

Empathy goes beyond just trying to feel what someone else is feeling. It is also taking compassionate action.

When trying to assess for empathy, Maria said, “One of the biggest traits of highly empathic people is curiosity.” If someone is genuinely interested and curious about another way of life, they are most likely more empathetic. If they are closed off and assume they know, they probably are not empathetic.

Maria also add some insights on how empathy works on the individual level, across the organization, and as a brand.

Learn more about Maria Ross

Maria made a unique website just for our listeners! 5 Ways Empathy Benefits Your Brand, Performance, and Culture.

The Empathy Edge Book

Red Slice

Today our guest is Maria Ross. She’s a brand strategist at Red Slice and author of the book “The Empathy Edge“. And this episode is Work Minus Toxic Cultures. Hi, Maria. How are you doing today?

I’m good. How are you?


I’m doing excellent. So excited to talk to you. This is such an important topic talking about empathy. Why don’t you take a little bit of time to introduce yourself to our audience?

Sure. I’m an author, a speaker, and a brand strategist. I run a brand consultancy called Red Slice where I help small to mid sized fast growth companies craft a compelling brand story so they can create better customer connections. And a big part of that work is also about helping them authentically live their brand, which means looking at their culture and looking at what they’re doing internally to fulfill their brand promise. And so, that is kind of what led me into this book about empathy and talking about it both from a brand perspective and an internal culture perspective.


Yeah. It’s not necessarily what you would call a natural flow. Obviously, we’re talking about empathy, right? It’s something that’s come up. How did that journey happen for you?

So, what I do with my clients, a big part of what I do is helping them have empathy for their target audience. Because if you don’t have empathy and understand what the world is like for the people you’re trying to sell to, you can’t create compelling sales messaging, marketing messaging, or a brand story. You really got to understand what their life is like, what they fear, what they value, what they aspire to be, so that you can tailor your products and services and your marketing message to best speak to them, best engage them, and better connect with them. So, I’ve been talking about empathy in that respect with my clients and in my career for a really long time. But personally, I was just really drawn to the topic, quite frankly, after the 2016 election in the U.S. And I was just really concerned about what I saw in terms of normalizing hate, normalizing fear of the other. And I was having that same conversation with a lot of clients and colleagues about what do we do? We’re feeling all this empathy, but we don’t know what to do with it. And they were really struggling with how to use their platform to make the world a better place. So, what can I do? We’re just a web design firm, or we just sell software, or I’m just a consultant or a coach. And so, I started down this journey of saying what if we change the way we do business and that is our impact on the world.

And so, it’s this idea that we spend the bulk of our time at work, 40, 50, 60, sometimes 70 hours a week. You can’t master empathy in that realm. There’s really no hope for us to make the world more empathetic. But what can we do with the people in our direct sphere of influence, our colleagues, our coworkers, our teams within organizations. And then I started gathering the data and the research because I really wanted to put a playbook together around making the case that empathy is not just good for society, it’s actually really great for business and the bottom line. So, that’s what the book is all about is about presenting those case studies, interviews, and all that data that says, when you operate with genuine empathy, you actually get a host of benefits for your organization. You increase innovation. You increase, in some cases, stock price. You increase customer loyalty. You increase positive PR that you get. And you increase retention and talent attraction. So, there’s so many vectors you can look at about how leaders and cultures and brands that lead with empathy can get all these other bottom line results. It’s not this fluffy, soft skill that has no place in business, which is what’s really exciting. So, ultimately, it’s about changing the definition of success for companies and showing that cash flow, creativity, and compassion are not mutually exclusive.


I love it. You’re in the club now. You said all the right buzzwords for us. We’re talking about the future of work with Work Minus. We’re talking about what we need to drop from how we view the world now to get to a better place. And I think a lot of us are compelled by that argument that says, no, even if I feel like I have a small part to play, there’s still a part to play. And it’s going to require so many of us to take those steps and to do that. So, this is very important for me personally. When we look at the future of work, why do you feel like empathy is a skill that’s going to be essential just in the next 10 years, let’s say. Why is it something that, as a company, we need to adopt that mindset?

Well, I think it’s a really exciting time because, number one, I’m not the only one out there saying this now. There’s a big trend towards looking at emotional intelligence. And the traits that make leaders successful, not just, oh, you’re just a really nice guy or a really nice gal, but the results that these people are getting because of the way that they operate, the way that they lead, the way that they mentor. And that’s really where we are now is there’s data and there’s research around this that it’s showing where this is going. The other thing is the big influential players are finally getting on board with this. I don’t know if you saw back in the beginning of the summer, but the Business Roundtable, which is a consortium of 200 of the largest companies in the U.S., changed their mission statement, which seems really minor, right? But they changed what the purpose of their for profit company is and they changed it from benefiting shareholders to benefiting stakeholders. So, they started including employees, customers, the environment, the community as that is your charter as a business. It’s no longer just to benefit shareholders. And the idea that they put a stake in the ground and said it’s about profit and purpose was huge. It made the cover of magazines. And again, it was a minor wording tweak, but it’s really a tweak in a philosophy about how we’re looking at capitalism these days. And that it’s not enough just to generate returns for your shareholders anymore. You’ve got to be thinking about your employees and your customers and your community as well.

In addition, with the generations of talent that are coming into the workplace now, millennials, Gen Z. First of all, we have a multi generational workforce unlike we’ve ever seen before. There’s four, sometimes five generations working together. And with that comes the need, the necessity to see things from another person’s point of view if we’re going to work together and be productive. And millennials and Gen Z, I probably don’t have to tell you, but they are demanding more of their workplaces. It’s no longer a nice to have if your company is diverse, and empathetic, and is good to the environment, and is socially conscious, and appreciates all voices within the company. That’s table stakes now, and the companies that don’t understand that are going to be dead because they will not be attracting the top talent. They will not be innovating anymore. They will not be attracting customers from those generations. And so, it’s a really exciting time from all angles in that both from the talent pool and what they expect, but also what customers in the market are expecting from companies, it’s vastly different than even 20 years ago. And so, it used to be a competitive advantage to say, hey, we’re an empathetic company and really live that out. And it’s becoming more of just something you have to have to survive.


So, let’s pick that up because you said “And really living that out,” as opposed to companies who just appear to be empathetic or companies that say, hey, we got the vision statement, we put stakeholders in there. So, let’s dive into that. What’s the difference between fake empathy, real empathy? You have this term called veneer empathy. I want to get into that.

So, the empathy veneer is really just the same thing as I work with my brand clients. It’s one thing to say you’re a certain type of brand. And it’s another thing to be it. So, you can say all you want in all your marketing and sales that you’re innovative, or you’re empathetic, or whatever. But if you’re not actually living that out, you’re not walking your talk. And so, how do you keep it from becoming just this cool poster you have on the wall that says, hey, we’re an empathetic company. I included an empathy authenticity checklist in my book, and it’s based on the work that I do when I’m looking at a client and looking at their brand. But how are you living that out? So, one way is is everybody aligned on the mission and values of the organization? Again, not just a poster on the wall, but if you ask anyone at any given time in the organization, do they really understand why they’re there, what the purpose of the organization is, and what the values of the organization are that they hold dear? So, that alignment is key because it means everyone’s rowing in the same direction.

Another one is how are you operationalizing empathy? So again, are you just talking and saying we are empathetic, but how do you prove that? How do you operationalize it? What policies, habits, practices exist within the organization to legislate empathy, if you will. There was a great quote I found when I was researching my book about the fact that we don’t just count on people to pay their taxes out of the goodness of their heart. We made it a law, right? So, companies can do the same thing when it comes to empathy. There’s lots of successful companies out there that are hiring for empathy. It’s part of their hiring practices. They are rewarding and holding people accountable for their performance reviews based on empathetic actions and support that they’re taking. They’ve embedded it into the process so it’s not just saying that we are empathetic, but I’m going to reward you and promote you and give you greater responsibility because of these policies and procedures I have in place around hiring, promotion, all that good stuff. So, those companies that are creating those… policy is not a dirty word all the time. Sometimes you can policy your way to getting people to behave in the way that you want them to behave because you’re rewarding them for that. And that shows that you’re really serious about it. So, companies like Airbnb, companies like REI, companies like Kronos and Next Jump that I talk about in the book, they’re doing extraordinary things that show that they’re putting their money where their mouth is.


Give us some examples of these empathetic actions. So, if you’re talking about a performance review, what are the types of things that you would say this clearly demonstrates that this person has an empathetic mindset?

Well, each company defines it differently. So, it’s just dependent on how they’re defining empathy. Some of them define it in terms of supporting their colleagues, some of them define it in terms of can you give an example of when this person found common ground with somebody else or was able to come to a productive conclusion in a project based on maybe they had conflicting views at the beginning and they worked it out and they were able to compromise and they were able to find common ground. Other companies, like Next Jump, for example, their big thing is about supporting each other and they go so far as to have a peer nominated reward for what they’re rewarding. And at the end, the person that wins gets a trip anywhere in the world for them and their family paid for by the company. So, it’s peer nominated. You need to point out the people that you think are exhibiting this behavior of being supportive and being there for each other, going above and beyond being empathetic. And we’re actually going to make that known, we’re going to recognize it, and we’re going to reward you for it. So, every company talks about it slightly differently, depending on how they are defining empathy. But what’s amazing is that, again, if everyone’s aligned on mission and values, and they understand what that common definition is within their company, and what’s expected of them, then they can start to look for those behaviors.


I feel like one of the key aspects of empathy is how you respond to criticism. So, when somebody comes up and claims that you’re not living up to your values, when somebody is clearly doing something that’s outside of that, how you respond to those reactions. So, what is it about empathy that allows people to respond in a right way and what is the best way to respond?

I think just to take a step back, we should define what we mean by empathy because I think this answers your question. Empathy is not necessarily just feeling what someone else is feeling. There’s been lots of definitions over time and different dictionary definitions. What we’re talking about is a mindset, and a perspective of seeing things through the other person’s point of view. And using that information, this is the important part, to take action. And that’s where the compassion comes in, the action is compassionate that you take. It might not be what you want to hear. But it’s the way you go about collecting the information and making a decision. That’s empathy. So, I look at empathy as a lens or a mindset. So, to answer your question, how do you enable yourself to be more empathetic and adopt that mindset more frequently? Among some of the other habits I recommend in the book, one of the biggest ones, the first one is really to practice presence, and make sure that you are whatever you need to do to ground yourself, whether that’s meditation, yoga, taking a walk, taking a few deep breaths before you go into a meeting, turning off all your distractions, so you can focus on the person in front of you. Once you do that, your mind is clear to be able to take on another person’s perspective and point of view.

But that also requires listening and being curious. So, when you’re confronted with someone who is questioning you on anything, whether it’s your values or the way you want to approach a project, you want to do plan A, they want to do plan B, how do you navigate that conflict? Well, number one is not to just dig in your heels and be, like, I am going to tell you why I’m right and you’re wrong. But one of the biggest traits of highly empathic people is curiosity. So, take that step back, practice that presence, and then say, okay, tell me more about that. Get curious, become an investigative journalist. Why do you feel that way? What behaviors are you seeing that are making you think that? You can find out that maybe what your intent was is not actually coming out in your actions, for example, in the situation that you’re talking about. But it’s when we get defensive and we shut down and we just think about defending our turf, that we can’t be empathetic with people. So, I’ve even adopted this in recent years, and I’m pretty hot headed. When I disagree with someone, instead of instantly, “That’s wrong. And here’s what’s right.” It’s, “Tell me more about that. What is your definition of success? What is your intent with that course of action?” And then you can find common ground from there and then build up and go, okay, I see. I see what your intent is. So, actually we’re both after the same goal. We just have a different way of going about it. And then you can have a productive conversation from there. But it really starts with that presence and that curiosity and being able to really listen and dig in to someone’s experience, and why they think what they think.


So, I hear all about curiosity, presence, empathy, it all sounds like something we should all aspire to and I feel like no one listening to this would say, “No, that’s a terrible idea. We should never do it.” But when it gets down to it, it’s very difficult to do. So, I was wondering, just on a personal level, Maria, if you would share a story about, as you’ve been on this journey, what’s one group of people or individually, you’ve had a really difficult time and had to really work extra hard to practice these empathy skills?

Well, obviously, I’ve gotten a lot more attuned to it since I started writing the book three years ago, but I will say something to your point. You’re absolutely right. Empathy is really easy when we’re talking about adorable little kids or suffering animals or refugees that are suffering. It’s a lot easier. It’s a lot harder when someone’s being a jerk at work. It’s a lot harder when you have someone reporting to you that will not listen to you and not do the things that you’re asking them to do.


I can be very empathetic with everyone who agrees with me.

Of course. And we can be empathetic with people that we sympathize with, for example. So, yeah, let’s not make a mistake. This work is hard. But I say it’s just like working out. You’ve got to flex those empathy muscles over and over again. And it’s going to feel really unnatural at first, just like when you start a new gym regimen, right? You’re going to be sore the next day. It’s going to feel like you’re forcing the behavior. But in the book, I talk to psychologists and talk to other people about you eventually can change your habits and change your pattern because you’ll be getting different feedback from the world. So, initially, it’s going to be very conscious and very forced. But eventually it becomes part of your operating system. And then that’s when it doesn’t become easy, but it becomes more default for you, in other words. And so, in my own experience, I can tell you an example of past experience in corporate where looking back and now working on this book, I realized I should have acted differently. We had a very toxic VP that came into a very functional organization after an old VP left, and when I say toxic, it was like someone was crying every day because of verbal abuse or disrespect or whatever it was. And I had gotten into some run ins with this VP for my “attitude problem.” And it was because I was trying to go at it as, well, I’m just going to give this person back what they’re dishing out. And I’m going to call them out on it, rather than having a very present and calm and curious conversation of actually going in and talking to this person and saying, I don’t know if you realize the impact of your actions, but here’s how everyone is feeling.

So, talk to us about is that the impression you’re trying to give us? Is that really the way that you want to lead? Because this is the impression we’re all getting, and people were really unhappy. And what ultimately happened is everyone left. So, had I approached it with taking a step back, calming my own anger and hurt and resentment down and saying, let me understand why this person is acting the way they’re acting. I think we could have had a much different outcome. Because I think in many cases people can be doing things or acting a certain way because of their own intent and they don’t realize the impact they’re having on other people, because maybe they aren’t as empathetic as they should be. I will say that, in my own experience, I think when you’re having that toxicity in the workplace, instead of hunkering down and lashing out in anger and fear, the best course of action might be to just have that calm, non charged conversation with that person and say, I don’t know if you realize this, but let me tell you, if they’re not going to be empathetic with you, make them be and show them your point of view and show them what the impact of their actions are on you. And I think that that can really go a long way.


In my own experience, probably in the last week or so, I’ve had a few conversations with people where the topic of generations has come up. And it’s almost always in this negative context towards especially baby boomer generation. Almost saying would you guys just stop working and get out of the workforce, and we can take this where we want to go? But I think this conversation is coming at a good time because it feels like, hey, that’s not the right attitude necessarily. People need to work and they still have a lot to offer. And there’s still a lot of things we can understand from generations before us to help out with these things. So, yeah, this is a really good conversation to have. Recently I went back and read the book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which I don’t know if you ever read that one. But the title always put me off for a while but it is foundationally about empathy. It’s about understanding who the other person is and how you can relate with those people. So, this is a very important topic. We talk about brand. We talk about corporate. We talk about individuals. So, this empathy goes through all levels of a company, right? You don’t just apply in one place.

Absolutely. For anything that you want to be known for, it’s got to start just like a good brand, it’s got to start from the inside out. It can’t just be this thing that’s painted on in a couple of cool ads we do that say we’re really kind and compassionate and empathetic. It’s got to actually be in the DNA of the organization. And that’s where a lot of brands fall down is that, at least in my work, they try to do what I call slap a coat of brand paint on their business, right? So, you can do that with empathy, too, whatever brand attribute you’re trying to be known for, whether it’s your culture or with your customers. And so, you’ve got to look at it as are we doing the hard work to actually live the message. What’s the proof? What’s backing up the claim that we’re empathy? What can we point to within the organization that says this is how we operate, and therefore, we can make this claim with all honesty? But I think what happens is people want a shortcut. And so, it’s like, okay, we want to be seen as empathetic because, and by the way, I don’t mind if companies are coming at this from a selfish point of view. That’s the whole reason I wrote the book is that if you need a selfish reason to be more empathetic with your employees and your customers, here’s my book, here’s the data. Because for me, once you adopt empathy, you’ve adopted it. You’ve performed the empathetic act, you’ve put in the empathetic policy. It’s sort of like being pregnant, it doesn’t really matter how you got there. Now you’re pregnant. And I’ve seen executives transformed from the outside in. Once they start performing these actions, even if they’re doing it, like I said, because it’s forced or it’s fake or whatever, they start to fundamentally change and go, “I want more of this in my life.” But the whole, “We’re empathetic because we give to the local homeless shelter once a year at Christmas time. That makes us empathetic. Or we’re going to give a big donation to hurricane victims once and then we’re never going to do anything good for our community again.” That’s what I mean by the veneer is trying to do these one hit wonders, where it’s like, oh, that’s going to go viral. And that’s going to get us good press. No. Genuine empathy runs much, much deeper than that.


I like the story in your book, you told about a company that had given food to a food shelter or a food bank or something like that. And it was just a one off thing. There just kind of do it. But then the people actually showing up and seeing what was actually going on really, really struck a chord. So, it’s not necessarily a which comes first. It’s about just doing it.

Exactly. Again, like working out. It doesn’t matter what gets you to the gym, if you end up getting healthier, then there you are.


True. Great. Maria, this has been great. Obviously, this is a big topic that we can get into more. But you have obviously a lot of resources. You have a book that’s out. But you also have a special link for us. So, tell us about that.

I do. So, I have a free guide with the five business benefits of being an empathetic organization and creating an empathetic brand. And it’s available at And so, that’s a special freebie for folks that are listening to the podcast. You can download that guide for free, but it gives a little bit of a taste as well of what’s in the book.


Cool. This has been great. We’re excited to connect with you more, to hear more about how we can be empathetic because I think being empathetic is a little bit just being a good human. So, it runs across all of the categories we talked about. So, this is great. I’m glad you’ve been on the show and we look forward to seeing you again soon.

Thanks a lot.


My name is Maria Ross, and I’m the founder of brand consultancy Red Slice. And I believe cash flow, creativity and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Entrepreneurs and fast-growth business come to me to create irresistible brand stories and messaging so they can stand out and better connect with customers.

Thousands of fast-growth companies, entrepreneurs, and small business owners have followed my advice to boost their brand and clarify their unique story. My books include The Empathy Edge and Branding Basics for Small Business. See, empathy is the key to brand success. And I understand the power of empathy on both the brand and personal levels: In 2008, shortly after launching my business, a ruptured brain aneurysm almost killed me and inspired my memoir, Rebooting My Brain. Audiences ranging from The New York Times to BlogHer have loved my actionable advice and dynamic keynotes. I’ve been featured in and written for numerous media outlets, including MSNBC,, Entrepreneur Magazine, and

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