Where’s the Empathy?

Here’s What Happened when I Gave My Students a Personal Branding Assignment

Last year, I added a module on personal branding to my graduate branding class at USC’s Communication Management program in the Annenberg School.

It was no surprise that the students struggled. When it comes to branding ourselves, I have always maintained that it is difficult or impossible to see ourselves clearly and objectively – the way others see us.  One struggle stood out in particular that I generally do not encounter when working with older (30+) clients. With one or two possible exceptions, my class of 21 students could not seem to muster up even a small dose of empathy.

Part of the final deliverable, a detailed creative brief for their personal brands, was for the students to describe the experience, focused on feelings, of working with them. The idea, which I communicated clearly, was to start each thought from their colleague’s perspective. For example, “When I work with Linda, I feel inspired.” Or, “I always feel safe when I work with Linda. I can take risks and raise any issue I want to talk about without fear of negative feedback.”

Yet when assigned the task of writing a few sentences on “How it feels to work with me,” none could break free of a self-centered attitude, one that focused on their own skills, not their potential coworkers’ feelings. Rather, I got submissions like these.

  • Working with Lisa makes everything efficient. She has demonstrated in her studies and work experience over the years that her attention to detail and observant nature enables her to “read the room” and guide her team to understand what evokes certain lifestyle aspirations.
  • Being associated with Jerry is like having a best friend and brand advocate simultaneously. Throughout his years in promoting and expanding the reach of entertainment, automotive, and aviation companies, he has truly mastered the craft of effective communication.

This is self-centered boasting, not empathy. And what’s really fascinating about this to me is that my students, for the most part, are very kind, unselfish people. Perhaps social media has trained people to always be selling, or worse, to always make everything about themselves.

We can talk about ourselves, brag and boast all we want. No one cares. Because it’s not about us, but what we can do for others. Do you know how it feels to be in the shoes of your prospects? We won’t make progress without empathy and a relentless focus on how we fit into to the worldview, values, and self-perceptions of those we whom we wish to engage.

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