ATD Blog

You Need Empathy to Achieve Extreme Performance

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

“A great adventure racing team operates on four brains, eight legs, eight arms . . . and one heart.” —World Teams Motto

Great teams follow people, not orders. As an adventure racer, I competed all over the world with different groups of people on expedition-length adventure races. We raced for eight to 10 days, nonstop, in heat, cold, wet, and dry, with little to no sleep. The successful teams I stuck with were the ones where we formed the closest personal connection.

That close connection wasn’t made by taking home the gold; it was made in the worst times, in the most difficult challenges, when one of us (sometimes me) was tired, exhausted, broken down, and ready to go home. That’s when a teammate reached out, lent a hand, said a kind word, and made all the difference in our performance. When you like someone and that person likes you, you’ll do more, try harder, and achieve more than when there is no connection at all.

Why You Need Empathy for Extreme Performance

In my last article, I talked about total commitment as the first essential element for extreme performance. Extreme performance, if you remember, is different than peak performance. Extreme performance is what you need when you want to reach a big, hairy, audacious goal—the kind that sets you apart from your competition. This is Zappos doing the ultimate for customer service, or healthcare company SAS going the extra mile for its employees so they have one of the lowest voluntary turnover rates in the industry.

You need empathy to achieve extreme performance. Empathy is when you are able to see something from someone else’s perspective, not just your own. The moment you do that, you make a true connection with a human being. You stop treating these people as a position (agent), department (purchasing), or company (Big Widget Inc.). You treat this man as John, the guy who loves golden retrievers and takes care of his mom, and that woman as Jane, the person who likes to do half marathons and just lost her husband. It’s this personal connection that makes the sale, changes someone’s mind, and gets someone to go the extra mile because they know you care.

If you want to connect with your co-workers, colleagues, clients, and customers, you need to connect with the person before the point, coach not criticize, and remember you work with people not companies.

Connect to the Person Before the Point

What’s the first thing you want to hear when you walk in the door? Is it “We need this report done now,” or “Great to see you. How’s your morning going?” If you respond better to people who look you in the eye and are genuinely concerned with your well-being first, you’re not alone.


When I became the sales rookie of the year for a Fortune 500 pharmaceutical company, it wasn’t because I had the slickest sales presentation. It was because when I went into a doctor’s office I talked to doctors as people. I sat down on their couch, learned about their spouses, looked at photos of their children, asked about their favorite sports teams, and told them about my latest adventure race. The “sales” part of the talk was often the shortest part, just going over the latest research. It was making a friend in each of my clients that helped me achieve extreme sales performance.

So, if you’re a leader, how do you think you will inspire great effort—by giving orders, or by taking time to ask how your teammates are doing?

Coach, Don’t Criticize

Things go wrong. At work we lose direction, get lost, and sometimes fail. When you’re depending on someone to finish their part of a project (sales report, spreadsheet, what have you) and they don’t follow through, it can be very frustrating. You get justifiably angry; but do you think telling your colleague he’s a jerk will get him to help you? When your voice goes up, people shut down or get defensive. Neither reaction will help with getting the work done.

Instead, if you use empathy, you might wonder how come your colleague or client didn’t come through. What were their problems and time pressures? Were they sick, was their server down, did they have a kid in the hospital? Was there something you could do to help their process along?


When you use empathy, you become a coach instead of a critic. You can reach out and ask: How can I help? What do you need from us to help you be successful? When you coach, you get a teammate instead of an opponent—and you can reach extreme performance.

Work With People, Not Companies

We get hired by companies, but we work with people. You may be hired by Big Widget Inc., for example, but the person you see every day is Betty, your supervisor. Big Widget may send you your paycheck, but Betty knows if you’re sick, when your kid has a birthday, when you landed a sale, or when you’re overwhelmed and need help.

I was reminded of this when I was battling a fire in October 2007 with my team at the San Diego Fire Department. Sometimes, battling fires can seem like an anonymous process. One burning house looks like another.

But at this particular fire, I came across some framed photos on the lawn that the family had dropped while running for their lives. These family photos made an instant connection with me. This was no longer some anonymous house; I felt I was working for the Smiths, and their children Suzie and Billy who had a dollhouse and a soccer net in the backyard. So I called my crew over and we did whatever it took to save their home.

As a leader, remember: Your teammates will go to extremes for you—if you show empathy and make the impersonal personal.

About the Author

Robyn Benincasa is a CNN Hero, motivational speaker, thought leader, world champion adventure racer, founder of Project Athena, and author of the New York Times bestseller How Winning Works.

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