A few weeks ago, my wife and I joined our friends at a local movie theater screening of the beautiful new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” which celebrates the life and legacy of Fred Rogers, titular host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. A warm and universally-beloved figure, Fred Rogers spent over four decades patiently teaching children that they were loved, important, and that their feelings mattered. While many of his contemporaries in children’s entertainment aspired to nothing more than lighthearted fluff, Mr. Rogers boldly addressed weightier issues such as divorce, war, prejudice, and death, all the while helping his young viewers become more kind and intelligent (both cognitively and emotionally). In his own way, this soft-spoken, sweater-clad Presbyterian minister was as radical and (dare I say) “punk rock” as any angry young teen sporting a Clash t-shirt and a safety pin in their cheek.
The theater was full of other adults who, like me, had grown up watching “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and had fond memories of magical trolleys, fish food, and trips to the crayon factory. We all sat facing the screen, laughing and crying, sharing a familiar communal experience that bound us together. But what WAS that experience? What WAS that feeling that made us all feel like we were a part of something bigger than ourselves? It was more than mere nostalgia; it was empathy.
Empathy, according to the dictionary, is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” At the risk of making a totally obvious statement, it seems that empathy is in short supply these days, particularly in the United States. Every day is a whole new avalanche of news stories about sorrow and heartbreak, and we use the comment sections and our social media accounts as battlegrounds to tear each other apart. What once were novel and exciting communication tools are now blunt ideological objects with which we attack each other. We love to teach our kids to be kind and accepting of others, and yet our own advice goes right out the window once we pick up our phones or laptops, all in the name of “fighting the good fight.”
At this point you’re probably wondering: “What on earth does all of this have to do with The Container Store?” Well, if empathy is in short supply in every day life, it must be the same way in business, right? Maybe where some people work, but not me! At The Container Store, I’m so proud that empathy is at the root of everything we do. It colors our interactions with our customers, our vendors, and each other, and it inspires us to come to work each day with love in our hearts.
For example, I work in our Customer Solutions Department, which has over one hundred employees altogether. In most companies, a department of that size would have at least a few jerks in the bunch, but I can honestly say that’s not the case here. From the top-down, we have an environment built on empathy; that means not only hiring empathetic employees, but also cultivating an atmosphere of love and appreciation. Many of my colleagues and bosses are as close to me as my own family members, and they’re just as concerned about my personal well-being—and the well-being of my wife and daughter—as my work performance. Not a single one of us is perfect, and we all have our differences, but together we’re great.
This empathy extends towards our customers as well. While a lot of retail businesses are bound by a number of inflexible policies, we empower our employees to do what’s right by the customer by taking our time to listen to them and offer the solution that works best. That’s not to say that we do whatever we want, but that our management team trusts us to make the right decisions to ensure our customers have a wonderful experience. It’s called customer “service” for a reason; we’re in the business of helping, and you can’t truly help someone without understanding their needs and point-of-view.
As our Chairman and Co-Founder Kip Tindell often likes to say, “business is not a zero-sum game,” and I love that idea. But I also think it applies to our lives outside of work; after all, life is not a zero-sum game either. Being kind, considerate, and tolerant of others is not a weakness, but one of the greatest strengths a person can have. We’re all here for only a short time on this earth, but the sooner we start practicing empathy and realizing that we’re all in this together, the better off we’ll be.