People can surprise us. I’d had a bad time at work, a long time ago, and was sharing my story with a male friend. We reminisced and laughed and drank a lot of red wine. “God, Laura” he said, “I feel so guilty about what’s happened to you, your story, it’s so awful” (note it wasn’t really awful, just mildly bad, the kind of boring sexism that most women experience in their working lives). Before I’d had a chance to protest that he had nothing to feel guilty about, it was nothing to do with him, he went on “I mean of course I sort of knew this stuff happens, it can be tough for women, but I’ve never really felt it before…” I was intrigued. Because, you know, this guy has been working in some fairly sexy organisations since before I went to high school. He’s been around and has seen a lot. And he’s one of the good guys, he gets it. But nothing – it seemed – had triggered an emotional response, a feeling of things not being right (rather than a knowing that things aren’t right), until a friend told her story, vividly and candidly.
This conversation reminded me of a comment made by the awesome Rev’d Lucy Winkett at a round table discussion a couple of years’ ago. Why, the table was asked, has so little really changed in diversity and inclusion, despite 50 years of equality acts, thousands of initiatives and millions of pounds worth of investment? Rev Winkett suggested that to get people (the over-represented – white middle class men – for example) to change, to sacrifice some of their comfort, to risk losing some of their ease in the world, it might help to ‘render vivid the suffering of others.’ It was a powerful expression and has stuck in my mind ever since. I’ve often wondered whether in all the business cases, statistics and economic arguments for diversity, we’ve lost sight of a human essential, empathy, and whether focusing on empathy’s role in leadership might bring some desperately needed fresh thinking to what seems to be – despite micro steps towards more diverse institutions – an impasse.
It’s for this reason that my business partner Sam Whittaker and I collaborated with the wonderful Dr Ksenia Zheltoukhova (freelancing at the time, now Director of Research Operations at NESTA) on a study on Empathy and Decision Making in Organisations. We wanted to know the importance of empathy as a trait in the best leaders and whether practitioners seeking to influence leadership decision making (e.g to invest in more diversity initiatives, to take a positive stance on diversity quotas, to listen and really engage with voices of ‘otherness’) would benefit from understanding it better. The study is a summary of what’s known in the world – in the management and psychology literature – about this fascinating topic.
Here are our main takeaways:
- Empathy is developable: Our ability to understand and experience the emotions of another person is not fixed, it can be grown. This has to be a good thing in a society where businesses and organisations are challenged to develop healthier and more progressive, more ‘human’ cultures.
- There are two types of empathy – cognitive – which means taking the perspective of another person by imagining ourselves in their situation – and affective – which means actually experiencing the emotions of others and sometimes experiencing a ‘compulsion’ to do something to ease their suffering, even if doing so is to the detriment of self-interest.
- If you’re a leader and want to make good, ethical decisions, tuning into your ability to experience cognitive empathy is a good idea. It means you’ll take into account multiple perspectives, and be able to get above and beyond the pure ‘rationality’ of the business case towards a real understanding of the impact of your decisions on all stakeholders.
- If you’re a leader who notices (or has had pointed out to you) that you’re more forgiving of, or giving to, colleagues who present plaintive cases than to the stoics in your organisation, be aware that your response may not stand up to peoples’ idea of fairness. You may be experiencing an affective response and be compelled to act to relieve the suffering of those noisy colleagues or team members. Try instead to tune into the cognitive side of empathy, and consider everyone’s position, not just the position of the loudest or most melancholic or dramatic in your teams.
- If you’re trying to influence a leader to change their behaviour, to do something differently, or invest in something new, don’t default to the idea that it’s the ‘pure’ business case that will do the trick. Using stories, ‘vivid narratives,’ may trigger the empathic response you need – a compulsion to act.
- If you’re trying to influence a leader with vivid narratives, focus on ‘closeness’ not pity. Whether you’re trying to get buy in to an apprenticeship programme to aid social mobility or investment in young leaders from BAME backgrounds, render their stories vivid by showing their proximity (our shared experience of being human) not pity (‘look, how sad this lack of opportunity is’). Pity doesn’t have the same impact as closeness (and, of course, trying to incite it for instrumental reasons is morally questionable!).
- And finally, remember, compassion fatigue is a real thing. My sense is that for leaders in most organisations to be suffering from it – that is from apathy and disinterest caused by an overload of compassion for their workforce and communities – would be a nice problem to have. But it is a thing, and after we’ve celebrated having this nice problem, we would need to pull back somewhat from our vivid narratives to re-energise our fatigued leaders.
My old friend’s response to my work dilemma suggested to me that there are many, many people who know that diversity and inclusion are important, but they don’t really feel it. Their experience of being in the majority, or of being ‘normal,’ shields them from the ongoing dreariness of always being ‘other;’ the petty aggressions, exclusions and double standards imposed by the status quo, and the pathologizing of anything that differs from the male, white, heterosexual norm. I want to understand how we can accelerate our progress to a fairer, more inclusive world of work, and I think understanding empathy better might be part of the solution. In fact, let me re-state that, I don’t just think it’s part of the solution, I feel it too.
If this has whet your appetite and you’d like to know more about the study and how it could influence progressive working practices and leadership development, get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.