Empathy, recognized as the capacity to comprehend and empathize with others' emotions, plays a pivotal role in financial services. Ashley Jenkins, SVP of Development Services at Nymbus, recently joined the Banking on Digital Growth Podcast to dive into the role of empathy, culture and even some good old humor and what roles these play when it comes to establishing and expanding a heart of growth at your bank at your credit union or at your fintech.

The top 3 insights from this article:

  • The Essence of Organizational Culture: A culture of safety enables open support seeking, which is vital for addressing mental health issues or personal challenges.
  • Digital Empathy: Integrating Empathy in Internal and External Relationships:The synergy between empathy and culture can enhance internal employee experiences and empathetic engagement with customers. 
  • The Role of Humor in Creating a Positive Communication Environment: Humor can be a valuable tool to break down barriers, create a relaxed atmosphere, and make others more receptive. 

The Essence of Organizational Culture: Safety and Warmth

James Robert Lay once had to define culture during his work with an organization facing challenges. He described culture as either a positive or negative alignment around a shared purpose, reinforced by common values that permeate every department of the organization.

Ashlie believes that the essence of an ideal culture is safety. To her, it's about whether individuals feel secure in their uniqueness and diversity, comfortable in voicing their ideas, and unafraid to admit mistakes. A safe culture allows people to openly seek support, whether it's related to mental health issues or personal challenges. Ashlie emphasizes the importance of small gestures, such as remembering birthdays and anniversaries or following up on personal situations, in creating a warm and safe environment. For her, warmth and safety are interconnected, and it's these small but significant actions that nurture and support a healthy organizational culture.

So why might an organization have a culture where individuals, teams even, don't feel safe?

Ashlie attributes the genesis of a culture lacking safety to leadership and pressure within an organization. She explains that if leadership fails to project a sense of safety and is burdened by stress, deadlines, and revenue targets, it can create an environment of aggression and stress. Ashlie, identifying herself as a highly sensitive person, notes that she is acutely aware of the energy in her surroundings, especially when leaders or teams are stressed. This, she believes, is a primary factor in the development of a negative culture stemming from a top-down approach.

Digital Empathy: Integrating Empathy in Internal and External Relationships

There's a synergy between empathy and culture, James Robert believes. And there's a potential for integrating empathy in two critical areas: firstly, enhancing the internal experiences of employees, and secondly, considering the empathetic engagement with account holders. For culture and safety to thrive, empathy must start from within the organization.

Ashlie champions the expression of love in professional contexts, questioning why such expressions are often stigmatized. Ashlie argues for deepening both internal empathy within teams and external empathy towards customers. She shares personal experiences where expressing love and creating personal connections have led to successful relationships, be it with customers or colleagues.

Related Content: Bridging the Digital Empathy Gap in the Financial Industry

For her, the goal is to be the supportive figure she once needed, whether as a leader, mentor, or consultant. This involves listening, communicating, and showing compassion, especially when facing challenges. She believes in building personal relationships, knowing customers’ personal details like family vacations and special occasions, to foster empathy and enhance customer experience. 

James Robert reiterates the importance of adapting to others' comfort levels. Emphasizing love as willing the good for another, he's an advocate for returning to the principle of respect, meeting people where they are, especially when they feel uncomfortable in certain situations.

The Role of Humor in Creating a Positive Communication Environment

The conversation highlights the importance of starting meetings or challenging conversations on a positive note, using methods like "What's Going WELL?" This approach is contrasted with teams that dive straight into business, often starting on a negative foot. The idea is to reframe the situation positively to influence the discussion's tone and morale.

Ashlie explains that humor helps her break down barriers in confrontational or negative situations, making others more receptive to her message. Humor can create a relaxed atmosphere, making it easier to engage with others, especially in more formal or stressful settings. The exchange underlines the value of humor in easing tension and fostering a more open and positive communication environment.

Navigating Change and Uncertainty in the Financial Industry

Humor is especially relevant in both personal and professional contexts, given the current state of confusion and chaos many leaders feel about the future. The Digital Growth Institute uses a diagnostic tool, the Future Growth Index, which assesses an individual’s or organization’s perspective on the future. The tool has revealed that many are stuck in a "cave of confusion" or mired in problems. James Robert stresses that one's view of the future significantly impacts their decisions and actions, advocating for a hopeful and positive outlook to foster better decision-making.

Ashlie adds that banks and credit unions cannot afford to sit idle, especially in the face of technological advancements and innovations. She emphasizes the urgency for these institutions to adapt and advance, warning that inaction or delay could be detrimental.

Related Content: Transforming Minds: Inspiring Change Within Your Organization 

James Robert reflects on the stoic phrase "memento mori," meaning "remember your death," and how it influences his thinking. He shares that he recently used this concept in coaching financial brand leaders, acknowledging that it led to some uncomfortable conversations. He believes that embracing discomfort is necessary for growth, as true progress often occurs outside the comfort zone. James Robert encourages a mindset of courage and vulnerability to navigate and embrace the unknown for meaningful growth.

Ashlie shares her personal experience with change, not claiming to be adept at handling it but rather embracing it. She describes a challenging period when she was laid off from a fintech company, feeling professionally and personally devastated. This experience prompted her to step out of her comfort zone and aim for a leadership position she had not held before. A year into this new phase, she acknowledges the growth that came from discomfort and challenges.

Reflecting on the changes brought by COVID-19, she expresses gratitude for the lessons learned and the newfound appreciation for life and simple pleasures. Ashlie mentions a tattoo that resonates with her journey, signifying love and hope even in the darkest times. This personal story underscores the growth that can arise from embracing change and finding strength in challenging circumstances.

Ashlie discussed the inevitable future of AI, automation, and cloud computing. She emphasizes creativity as a critical factor in addressing contemporary concerns such as climate change, sustainability, and diversity. Ashlie highlights the role of fintech companies in creating innovative solutions for these issues, like sustainable home improvement loans and supporting nonprofit organizations. She shares Nymbus' focus on niche banking and an idea from her team about banking for the underbanked in immigration, providing services to immigrants to help them build credit and obtain loans. Ashlie believes in looking beyond just technological advancements, aiming to creatively address issues that significantly impact people's lives.

Cultivating a Culture of Empathy and Innovation in Financial Services

James Robert ties the conversation back to its beginning, emphasizing the importance of an empathetic approach to growth and the necessity of putting people not only at the center of one's thoughts but also actions. This, he believes, is the best way to establish trust, which is built through both words and actions.

Looking towards the future, Ashlie predicts an increase in the aggressive integration of technology in financial services. She notes that customers demand personalization and are no longer satisfied with traditional banking methods. Ashlie observes that people often use multiple financial institutions and that financial services need to be creative in their approach. She doesn't see a one-size-fits-all solution; instead, she envisions a "Frankenstein approach" where various components are assembled to meet specific customer needs, focusing on customer experience and creativity.

James Robert compares this to playing with Legos, drawing a parallel between the creativity and collaboration seen in his children's play and what is needed in financial services. He reflects on the importance of innovation and teamwork in finding solutions. 

Take Action Today:

When asked about the most important next step for someone on their journey of growth and integrating a heart of growth into their work, Ashlie advises to listen and create a safe environment. She emphasizes the importance of actively listening to teams, peers, and leaders to foster empathy and understanding. By creating a safe space, innovation and creativity are encouraged, allowing for out-of-the-box thinking. Ashlie highlights the role of leaders in setting an example and ensuring that such an environment is established and maintained.

Anyone can immediately start applying this approach of listening and creating a safe space, making it an actionable step for immediate implementation.

For more about financial transformation, reach out to James Robert Lay at the Digital Growth Institute.