Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

A Revealing Look at One of The Dirty Words in Business

Image courtesy of sicoactiva

Have you ever noticed how discussions on improving business operations or possible solutions to today’s economic challenges rarely consider what the emotional impact will be on employees? In some ways, it’s not too surprising given how many of us have had leaders who taught us to not take things personally at work given that “it’s just business”. However, the findings from a recent report should get many of these leaders to reconsider the role human emotions play in how they lead their teams.

The UK business magazine “Management Today”, along with the Institute of Leadership and Management, carried out a survey of 2,405 managers and 2,595 non-managers to determine how much trust employees have in the CEOs who run their organizations. In what should certainly be an encouraging sign for both leaders and their organizations, 47% of those surveyed felt that leaders had done a good to very good job managing their companies through the current global recession. Where things get interesting, though, is when they compared the trust levels attained by male and female CEOs.

For the second year in a row, female CEOs rated higher trust levels than male CEOs. What’s more, in this year’s survey, they also found that male employees have a greater level of trust in female CEOs than those who work for male CEOs. In fact, the level of trust for female CEOs was especially high among men who work in non-managerial roles within their organization.

So what’s behind this growing divergence in trust levels employees have for female CEOs over male CEOs? After reviewing their data, the report’s authors found it comes down to one word.

Empathy.

Now before anyone starts crying out against stereotyping women as being ‘soft’ or ’emotional’, let’s look at how the survey authors contextualize the connection between empathy and the higher levels of trust female CEOs earned from their employees.

Looking at the results of their survey, the authors noted that the key reason female CEOs rated such high trust levels was because they were knowledgeable “of what their employees have to contend with in their day-to-day lives”. The fact that female CEOs were aware of and understood what hardships their employees were going through lead to a greater sense of trust between employees and their leader, regardless of whether their leader could do anything to improve the situation.

I couldn’t help but notice how the above concept mirrors the difference in interactions my wife and I have with our children’s friends. On a number of occasions my wife would point out some individual in the crowd and comment how that’s so-and-so’s father or mother, and most times my reaction would be a head-scratching ‘which kid is that again?’. Of course, it’s not because I have little interest in getting to know my daughters’ friends or who their parents are. Instead, it’s just something that comes naturally to my wife, while I have to make an conscious effort to be able to remember and recall such details.

In both cases, I think what this demonstrates is the difference in how men and women process information to understand or interpret the world around them, and the interactions they have within it. It’s not that women might care more for others than men as it is that the actions that can demonstrate empathy toward others comes more naturally to women than it does to men.

Of course, as we all know, it’s not a given that all women are empathic, nor that most men are indifferent to others. Rather, what it comes down to is what we choose to do with the information we do have that determines if others view us as being aware or appreciative of the circumstances they face.

With this in mind, what can leaders do – be they men or women – to demonstrate more empathy toward those under their stewardship?

For starters, leaders need to make time to become more familiar with the day-to-day issues their employees face. For many, the focus tends to be on getting results from specific tasks or projects they assign to their team. Unfortunately, this narrow focus can create a blind spot regarding how certain factors can have an impact on your employee’s productivity or ability to complete the assigned tasks. For example, many leaders might not appreciate how a recent round of layoffs can adversely impact the remaining team members, not just psychologically, but in how their workloads have grown as they absorb the responsibilities of those who no longer work there.

For men, such details tend to get overlooked perhaps in part because it’s so obvious that we pay little attention to it. A good example of this kind of behaviour is how husbands often ask their wives where their car keys are or if there’s any more milk in the fridge despite the fact that the items can be found in plain sight.

On the surface, this sounds like a rather trivial detail, but as the results of the survey described above point out, it’s a detail that nonetheless has a powerful impact on your team’s perception of your leadership, and consequently how effective you are in your role. In this light, perhaps more than ever, it’s time for leaders to get out from behind their desks and get involved in understanding the challenges their employees face every day they go to work.

So now it’s your turn – what do you think leaders can do to display more empathy in the workplace? And how much of a difference do you think this would have in the performance of your team in meeting their objectives? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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32 Comments » | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | October 4, 2010 by |

32 Comments
  1. On October 5th, 2010 at 10:05 AM susanmazza said:

    You've done a great job of making the case for empathy in business Tanveer. We are shifting our focus from mechanize to humanize, but for many it is a hard shift to make.

    Empathy is critical but I am left wondering if it can be learned, at least at the level where the empathetic behavior actually occurs as authentic rather than contrived. Could it be that some people are destined to be remedial in this respect? If this is one of your blind spots though it is a good idea to get some support. And if trust in you and//or your leadership team is weak then this is a great place to look in terms of what might be missing.

  2. On October 5th, 2010 at 11:20 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Susan; I'm glad you liked this and I think you ask some excellent questions about how to reconnect human empathy with current business models. For starters, I think what we need to understand is that our sense of empathy is not something that needs to be learned. In fact, recent research into mirror neurons has demonstrated that we're not wired to be self-absorbed or aggressive, but that we're soft-wired for sociability and an attachment to others, concepts that correspond to empathy.

    A good example of this in action is to look at how we respond to a natural disaster that happens to other nations. Our reaction is not indifference or relief that it doesn't directly impact us. Instead, there's a genuine desire to provide help to those suffering, of offering our supplies and resources regardless of the difficult economic conditions we have to deal with at home.

    Of course, many have repressed their connections to these mirror neurons, as a result of their education, their experiences and so forth, making it hard for them to be sociable or be sympathetic/aware of the difficulties others are facing. In these cases, it can feel like quite a challenge to express or display empathy in a manner that feels authentic.

    The best way to address this is to do what you suggest, Susan, and find some support from those around you, people who you'd be willing to listen to and accept what they're saying, to help you reconnect with what natively exists in most of us (excluding those few that lack empathy more out of a neurological deficiency/abnormality).

    And after reading the results of this survey, I think many leaders should feel motivated to get the support they need to start being a more empathic leader if they truly want to succeed at reaching their objectives, if not also in their role within their organization.

    Thanks again, Susan, for your thoughtful comment and kind words.

  3. On October 5th, 2010 at 12:04 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Richard. The point here is not that leaders, or anyone else for that matter, needs to think they have to become some sort of 'super-human'. Instead, this is about recognizing that showing empathy, feeling concern and care for the well-being of others is at the very heart (no pun intended) of what it means to be human.

    If humans were really self-centric and focused solely on personal gains, how could we ever have created human civilization? The first agrarian society aggregated not because they wanted to serve the interests of a select few, but because they felt intrinsically drawn to one another as they saw mutual benefit in the process of working together, collaborating toward a common goal.

    Unfortunately, we've taken our humanity out of the business equation, preferring to focus more on metrics, processes and so forth. However, we need to recognize that the reason why as a species we've been able to achieve the great leaps in progress we have is not out of a singular self-interest, but out of a desire to connect and build infrastructures and organizations that serve the needs/interests of everyone involved.

    In other words, progress is achieved not by taking humans out of the equation, but by putting them front and center.

    Thanks Richard for adding your thoughts to this delightful discussion, along with the link to the TED talk. Glad you enjoyed this piece.

  4. On October 5th, 2010 at 12:59 PM @ramartijr said:

    As always Tanveer, You are brilliant. There is another concept that rolls into this discussion too. As human beings we have more intellect than just our thoughts. We have emotional, physical and spiritual knowledge as well. I think as a society we have been operating out of our heads for too long. It is time to bring our whole person together so that we can use all these gifts in a balanced way. Fortunately I sense this happening ( but it may be that I am just aware of it and paying attention to it more.)

  5. On October 5th, 2010 at 2:47 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Richard; that's most kind of you to say.

    I agree that what we're seeing at work here is the need to encompass the whole individual, and not merely limiting our focus to their technical abilities or role within the group or organization. After all, there's a reason why, despite all the technological advancements of the last twenty or even ten years, we haven't seen a drastic displacement of people from the workplace. And that is because we need the whole spheres of a person, and not simply their skills or knowledge, to help our organizations thrive and mature. As our collective past shows us, such growth can only happen when we bring our full selves to the table to collaborate and share.

    Thanks again, Richard, for building on the discussion. Glad to see this piece is resonating with you, as it is with others.

  6. On October 5th, 2010 at 2:18 PM Gina said:

    This is something I have always known but few want to talk about. Thank you for this post. Women have a harder time separating the business from the personal. They typically nurture relationships- regardless if they are in or out of the office. Men seem to have an easier time separating the two. They don't get emotionally attached and can look at things from a more objective view- not letting the "human factor" play into the final decisions. It really is "just business" in their view.

  7. On October 5th, 2010 at 3:20 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Gina,

    Glad you enjoyed this post. It's not surprising that the current model of business doesn't support empathy (at least openly) as, until the last few decades, it's been a predominantly-male construct. And looking at how men were raised over the last few centuries, it was a given that men would shy away from any emotional contexts, thereby ensuring that business would have this very impersonal feel to it.

    However, as I discussed in an earlier piece "Are We Ready For the Workplace Gender Shift?", I suspect we're about to see a paradigm shift in the business model as more and more women occupy management positions, as well as non-managerial roles (most surveys still show women having a hard time cracking into the upper management level). While some might expect that women would simply reinforce the existing models, the results of this survey show that many women CEOs are electing to introduce an emotional element at work; of allowing for signs of empathy to define how their leadership is perceived.

    Given the positive outcomes these measures are fostering among they lead, it stands to reason that encouraging empathy at work would benefit all leaders, if not also everyone in their organization.

    Thanks again, Gina, for offering your thoughts on this piece.

  8. On October 5th, 2010 at 5:43 PM @mjtwit said:

    Tanveer – Great post. I love your example with your wife knowing everyone…that is exactly my wife and I.

    Oddly I was just watching undercover boss the other night, and when I checking the twitter stream about the show I saw a tweet saying something like "why do women CEOs have to cry so much" – this while I'm getting teary with some of thing they are doing for employees….the point being, that yes, Women are typically more emotional than Men, which in turn I think can make them more "real" to employees..thus increasing trust.

    Also, I love your line at the end "With this in mind, what can leaders do – be they men or women – to demonstrate more empathy toward those under their stewardship?" Stewardship, a term that is rarely used business and leadership, but if embraced can dramatically change how people work together and FOR each other.

    Empathy and Stewardship – two things that if leaders can embrace I think will make people and business much better.

    Thanks!
    Mike

  9. On October 5th, 2010 at 7:33 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I agree with you, Scott, that listening is one of the most underrated skills in leadership these days. And of course by listening, I'm not simply referring to nodding one's head while they are talking, but actually hearing the ideas, concerns or problems they wish to share.

    I think, though, that most leaders don't necessarily think they have all the answers as they feel there's this expectation that they do because of their position. Taking the time to get to know your employees and empathize with their circumstances will go a long way to building connections between leaders and their employees, if not reminding them that those they follow are just as fallible and human as the rest of us.

    Thanks for your comment, Scott.

  10. On October 6th, 2010 at 10:27 AM Judie said:

    Tanveer, this is one of the more interesting discussions I've come across recently. It touches so many levels of what it means to be "human". Our culture has fostered a very "me" centered mindset. Possibly one of the benefits of the current economy is the shift toward reaching out, giving and helping one another in ways many of us didn't think we had time for. When this happens we can't help but become more connected and empathetic.

    For those looking for somewhere to start on a path of greater empathy – try acknowledging those you come in contact with – a "Good Morning", "Thanks for your help", "I appreciate the work you're doing." and meaning it, goes a very long way especially when raises and bonuses have flatlined.

    Thanks for starting this exchange.

  11. On October 6th, 2010 at 2:47 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Judie; it certainly has turned into a delightful conversation and I would even say it's probably one that was long overdue. One of the things we keep hearing lately is how social media is helping us to become more connected and thus, more in touch with others around the world and even in our own backyards. But the more I've thought about the growth of social media usage in the last 2-3 years, I think what we're seeing more is a reconnection with our sense of humanity.

    Think about how often rather simple events create these bonds between people that weren't there before – a major sporting event where the city team wins or a natural disaster that drives people away from their homes. In each of these cases, whether the event is positive or negative, there's a spontaneous connection created among people, a feeling of having shared a similar experience or moment.

    I think it's this sense of connection, brought forth through our innate sense of empathy, that is so absent in the business world. With the current global economic crisis showing no signs of going away anytime soon, along with the gradual gender shift that's happening in workforces around the world, I do believe changes are forthcoming to the business model. Ultimately, though, it's up to all of us to decide what that change will be.

    Thanks again for joining in the conversation, Judie. I'm happy to hear others are enjoying it as much as I am.

  12. On October 6th, 2010 at 10:49 AM Believe in Karma said:

    Great post and follow up comments!
    As someone who works with Senior Level Management on a daily basis, I see a wide negative gap in empathy in "leaders" who run companies owned by investment groups. When the VCs come in they hire men who are masters in slashing overhead and maximizing profits. These people have no empathy or consideration for their employees; they slash jobs and increase workloads on remaining employees without a moments hesitation or concern, if the employee complains, they will be fired. The constant negative environment and endless responsibilities destroys employee morale and personal performance, but it is of no concern to the profit driver. With the employment market as it is, they can churn and burn people quickly and hire new people at lower rates of pay.
    I have yet to see a woman in one of these positions, they have all been men who have a long history of going into newly acquired companies to "maximize profits". I wonder what it would take to turn on the empathy in these corporate hired guns and VCs? Would a personal tragedy engage their emotions to their brain? A devastating illness? The decimation of their career? Greed and ego trump empathy in these people. They are certainly not leaders.

  13. On October 6th, 2010 at 3:16 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    It's unfortunate that this notion persists that earning profits and treating your employees with respect are diametrically opposed, especially where there's numerous studies that prove the contrary to be true. Sure, it's easy to dismiss the idea of demonstrating empathy as being for bleeding hearts or it's too touchy-feely for the business world. Yet, the numbers don't lie and I think what we'll be seeing in the months and years ahead is that those companies that value and empathize with their employees will be the ones who will begin to move ahead.

    As for those that insist on holding onto these unproven models for effective business growth, I doubt many of us will be surprised to see them struggling to get a toehold, if not falling apart at the seams due to their failure to nurture a sense of connectedness among the people within their workforce.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with this and glad you've been enjoying the discussion.

  14. On October 6th, 2010 at 11:04 AM Dorothy Dalton said:

    Excellent piece Tanveer! I had seen some research recently that distrust of leadership was indeed a major issue. Interesting that women CEOS are perceived to be more trustworthy than their male counterparts.

    I do believe as more women reach senior levels in organisations in growing numbers, there will be a natural shift in business culture. Some of the strengths associated with gender stereotyping for women will finally become acceptable in biz environments and not associated with weakness.

    Maybe then we will see a flood of books suggesting how men can be more like women!

  15. On October 6th, 2010 at 3:41 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Dorothy.

    Unquestionably, distrust is a big issue in leadership circles these days, especially with so many high-profile cases of CEOs showing a complete lack of integrity in how they approach their responsibilities to those they lead. I agree with you that we have to expect a change is coming to our business culture, in part because of a larger percentage of the workforce being occupied by women. But I also believe that our greater ability to connect and engage with others thanks to advances in internet and mobile technology will also play a role in this change by reminding us of our innate drive to be connected with others.

    Just as the role of fatherhood is shifting from that patriarchal head of the family model to one where fathers are expected to be more hands-on and involved, so too will the approach and function in leadership positions shift, from being one where leaders preside over others behind their desks to one where they are working side by side with their team.

    This is certainly turning into a fascinating discussion. Thanks for adding your thoughts to it, Dorothy.

  16. On October 6th, 2010 at 10:27 PM Monica Diaz said:

    Great post, Tanveer! Empathy is underated in leadership, in the corporate world and, sadly, in daily interactions as well. In the workplace, just focusing on treating PEOPLE AS PEOPLE, not resources, not pawns, not employees really makes a difference. When a leader displays empathy, makes it central to work ethic and models understanding along with high expectations for productivity it sends a message loud and clear: You would all do well to consider others' perspectives, feelings, reactions!

  17. On October 7th, 2010 at 11:17 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Monica; I appreciate that.

    Empathy is definitely underrated in leadership unfortunately in large part due to the persisting notion that to display any form of emotion while at work is a sign of weakness. And that itself leads to another interesting commentary on today's leadership and that is if leaders can't feel like they can show any weakness to those they lead, what does that say about their effectiveness as a leader?

    Thanks again, Monica, for sharing your thoughts on this piece and adding to this wonderful discussion.

  18. On October 7th, 2010 at 12:29 PM Wendy said:

    WOW Tanveer, I haven’t read a business article this spot on in a long time. You’ve touched on an area that employees really need – sincere empathy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard complaints from employees that upper management just doesn’t care about them, even as specific as to say that management people never ask how they are doing. People need to be acknowledged as people with a life outside of work and also recognized that they have feelings. If you can reach their hearts, you can lead them to greatness!

  19. On October 7th, 2010 at 1:19 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Wendy; this piece is certainly serving to validate what many employees are feeling, as well as giving many leaders a wake-up call to see how much this issue matters to those they lead.

    Of course, I suspect there will be some resistance to demonstrating more empathy at work, mostly out of a sense of fear than a lack of caring for others. After all, we've been using this particular business model of telling employees to not take things personally as it's just business for several decades. And changing from the known and familiar can be scary, but in light of these findings, I think many businesses and their leaders will be hard-pressed to not start taking this issue to heart if they really want to be successful in the decades to come.

    Thanks again for the kind words about this piece, Wendy. I appreciate your sharing your thoughts on this subject.

  20. On October 8th, 2010 at 1:39 PM @edjvt said:

    Greetings Mr Naseer, I just found your site this week and I think it’s a great resource for people like me who’s beginning to get involved with topics of coaching, management, business and leadership.

    I think this post go straight to the point. It’s something I’ve been thinking since long time ago that CEO’s much time didn’t take time to know its people beyond office, I think it’s important to make a good team. If people feel comfortable and understood in its work environment they will do its assignments better. If you as a CEO didn’t reach that point maybe you’ll get people full of complaints.

    Very interesting point of view, keep doing this great job.

  21. On October 8th, 2010 at 3:41 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Edgard. I think it's going to be hard for leaders to ignore this much longer given such findings, if not also the writings on the wall of their organizations. Certainly, it's hard to justify staying the course in light of a company's declining performance compared to those that are thriving because they openly embrace the importance of empathy as part of their workplace culture.

    Thanks again, Edgard for your comment. Glad to hear you've been enjoying my site.

  22. On October 13th, 2010 at 9:46 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Tanveer:

    Great discussion here. Reminded me of an interview I read this past month with Abbe Ravin, of A&E: Last question – she calls it Rarefied Air when a great leader gets out from behind the desk.

    I say it is time for Empathy to be taught at B-Schools.

    Jimmy

  23. On October 13th, 2010 at 11:35 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    It certainly has been an excellent discussion on the subject of empathy in leadership. I'm not sure empathy is something that can be taught, especially in a school setting; instead, I would say that what's needed in B-school curricula is more content encouraging both an understanding and an awareness of the importance of empathy to being an effective leader. The ability itself exists in all of us; we just have to be willing to demonstrate it to others through our actions and words.

    Thanks for the link, Jim. I enjoy reading this series of interviews with business leaders in the New York Times; some of them are particularly good in offering some great insights into managing and understanding people. Thanks for sharing it with my readers.

  24. On October 15th, 2010 at 1:10 PM Cherry Woodburn said:

    A valuable post and addition to the NOW Leadership carnival. I worked for decades as a consultant to corporations and it amazes me that with all that's been written over the years, many mgrs/leaders still don't understand the value and long-term pay-off of empathy. I hope that as people like you keep plugging away on that point it will be accepted more and more with trust and its concomitant rewards helping businesses and people flourish. Cherry

  25. On October 15th, 2010 at 1:54 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Cherry; glad you found this piece through the NOW Leadership carnival. Unquestionably, there is a need for inclusion of empathy in workplace interactions as this and other studies continue to demonstrate the importance of empathy to the ability of organizations to not only function in the long-term, but achieve the success they keep struggling to attain. Continuing to draw awareness to these studies and their findings will hopefully make these introductions/realizations happen far sooner than later.

    Thanks again, Cherry, for stopping by and sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  26. On July 2nd, 2011 at 12:49 PM Paul Nicholas said:

    Hi Tanveer – only just found this one – but a wonderful read. Thank you.

    I become ever more convinced that most human interaction and decision making is led by emotion.

    Our natural response to a stimulus of almost any kind is emotional (stimuli without an emotional content don't seem to get noticed). Next comes the emergence of feelings, only then followed by the creation of an internal representation, the emergence of thought and reasoning, and articulation, decision or action. The early part of the process seems to be unconscious – we "make up our mind" then create a narrative that explains our "choice" to ourselves and others. Empathy seems to be a social adjunct of this – and empathic individuals "tune in" to the emotions and feelings of others, adding dimensions of understanding and meaning lost to those who lack this quality.

  27. On July 2nd, 2011 at 1:17 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely, Paul and well said. Human communication is a lot more complicated than we tend to think and our current rush to 'speed things up' in how we communicate is only serving to exacerbate the situation because we're slowing losing touch with the context within which most communications, messages are being shared or imparted.

    What the empathetic trait allows us to do is to shift from reactive mode – from internally focusing on how to shape our response/justify our position based on what we're hearing or seeing – to responsive mode, where our focus is more on collecting information from all these avenues you mention and being aware of how our own emotions can distort what others are trying to tell us.

    As I've written elsewhere, our goal as leaders shouldn't be to be seen as right but to do what's right. In order to do that effectively, we need to be attentive and aware to what those around us are going through and what resources/guidance they require from us to succeed in achieving their goals. Drawing on our innate ability to be empathetic is the best way to accomplish this.

    Thanks again, Paul, for the excellent comment. Appreciate your adding your thoughts to this discussion.

  28. On July 20th, 2011 at 3:38 AM Sindi Walters said:

    One Word – "BRILLIANT"

  29. On April 8th, 2012 at 2:22 PM Vicky Sadhu said:

    You've done a great job of making the case for empathy in business Tanveer. We are shifting our focus from mechanize to humanize, but for many it is a hard shift to make.

  30. On April 9th, 2012 at 6:50 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Vicky; I think part of the difficulty in making this shift is because we still tend to refer to this as being a "soft skill" which often tends to derive skepticism in business circles.

    However, the reality is that humans are biologically wired for empathy. One only need look at our collective response to a disaster or tragedy that happens in distant countries to see that in action. As such, the key here is not so much having to try and build these 'soft skills' as it is increasing our awareness of when the use of these innate skills would improve the way we do business.

  31. On May 16th, 2012 at 10:25 AM @shinobicoach said:

    Tanveer,

    You really should have titled your article "Why Women CEOs are Trusted More and What You Can Learn from Them" (grins).

    I especially liked the story about how your wife notices things differently and how that information is used.

    Having managed people and also been managed I can totally relate to the idea of how being "knowledgeable about what their employees have to contend with in their day-to-day lives" is so vital to both morale, trust and loyalty.

    When you can express that to your team you build a commonality of seeming just like one of them.

    And that's definitely powerful.

    Sadly I've worked distant executives in the past – some male and some female.

    And certainly the employee turnover was much higher.

    Fair winds,
    Sunny Lam

  32. On May 16th, 2012 at 10:57 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Sunny,

    I know some writers like to play the gender card, which sadly tends to make such issues more divisive "us vs. them" rather than an opportunity to appreciate how we can learn and benefit from such differences.

    And in this case, empathy is not a gender-specific trait as it's very much a human one. After all, we've all had male bosses who were very aware and intentional about understanding their employees and at the same time having female bosses who treated employees as mere cogs in the wheel (I know I have).

    At the end of the day, the key message here is that all of us are capable of demonstrating empathy and doing so in a leadership position has a valuable impact on ensuring the collective success of those you lead.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this, Sunny.

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