Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 11, 2018
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” — Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
And so we come this week to empathy and what it means to stand in another person’s shoes, especially if they are one size too small. Cris Beam, a professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey, believes that empathy is ingrained in the psyche from birth. He calls it the “baseline empathy.” We start out as caring human beings, our children mirror empathy and then over time, they learn something different. Beam believes that empathy is a hot topic today, because under the color of caring, corporations are really only in the business of selling us more stuff. We get the caring cuddle online and then the discount buy signal. Beam is suspect of the “feel good” movement. He thinks it is primarily a way to make money and that empathy is something “that should be modeled and learned for its own sake, not something to be acquired and graded.”
Even discounting the economic hustle, empathy still means a great deal in the workplace. Here is a story. Bob works for a large organization, and he has flown to their headquarters for a two-day meeting. At the last minute, his manager asks Bob to stay over another night, for another big meeting. Bob says he can’t do that, he has to fly home, his son is sick and wife is out and plans have been made. The manager throws down the gauntlet and says that if you don’t stay I will fire you. Bob leaves and gets on the plane to go home, and the next day he is fired. Bob is a $250,000 per year big data genius — these guys do not grow on trees. What was that manager thinking?
When I heard this story (and I know the company well), I was amazed and saddened. But this story is merely a placeholder for the myriad complex issues of management and children and health care and productivity and teams. The bottom line is that if you want to have a functional company, you will need to train managers and executives in the skill of empathy. There are countless stories where the empathic response dictates that you bend the rules, you allow for unforeseen variations, you accommodate the situation. My wonder is that it appears to be so infrequent.
Consider the court system (and the prison system) and the unconscious biases we all have. Think about the rise of bullying. And so it goes. Why is empathy on the front page of every corporation’s stated playbook, but their true behavior impact appears to be rather modest or even forgotten? It is corporate lip service that they pay to empathy, not action.
Beam asks the question, “is empathy a skill?” In other words, can it be taught, like learning to play the piano? Beam thinks it can be modeled, that you can absorb empathy and acquire that mindset. In the simplest form, it is helping the old lady across the street, even though you are late for a meeting. Beam says that empathy is “receptivity and being mutually vulnerable to one another.”
For me, the power of empathy is in the workplace. If I can develop an empathic mindset, my employees will be happier and perform better. That may sound crass, but I have touched on this before in talking about bonuses and accommodation for personal needs. I am not a saint, I want to win, and at the same time, I know the cost of losing good people (or customers). I do not want anyone falling or jumping off my ship, so I provide life vests for the whole crew — and sandwiches from Con Pane Rustic Breads & Cafe.
However, on the other side you can have too much feeling and be overly sensitive. That can lead to being taken advantage of, and then you overreact and begin to insulate yourself from all feelings (like the robotic venture capitalist on the television show “Silicon Valley”). And finally, Beam asks if the power of social media increases empathy (your Facebook friends) or does it decrease it (countless dispiriting blogs read by no one)?
Rule No. 563: Prospicio ergo sum. (I see, therefore I am.)