The summer of 2020 is a season of discontent and unrest unlike any other in recent memory. Corporations responded to George Floyd’s death with public statements decrying the injustices and pledging support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
Yet as summer wanes and the impact of the statements fade, companies continue to struggle with how to tackle racial injustice within their organizations.
Notwithstanding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) commitments already in place, the experience of upheaval this summer uncovered persistent and unresolved race-related problems within organizations of every size and type.
As the racial crises unfold, many companies worked to bolster empathy as their immediate way forward. Certainly our world, and workplaces included, can use more empathy right now.
Yet empathy is a vague concept with an unproven record for triggering change.
Let’s be clear about what we mean by empathy, and how and what kind of actions we expect to see as a result of the efforts.
Arguments For Empathy at Work
The case for focusing on empathy looks something like the following:
- Racism at work connects with unconscious bias or discriminatory and hidden assumptions.
- As we uncover and examine our unconscious biases, we develop empathy.
- With this increased empathy, we will be motivated to act.
- Individual actions will strengthen DEI and eradicate racism at work.
While this logic makes sense at first glance, the propositions suffer from potential weaknesses:
- Empathy has many meanings. Lack of clarity waters down empathy as the tool for effecting change.
- Empathy doesn’t guarantee action. The common approaches for increasing empathy in the workplace may lead to a greater understanding of others and self-insight. Yet these initiatives may not bring about behavior change.
What Kind of Empathy do You Wish to Build?
Despite the topic’s popularity, the meaning of empathy is neither clear nor consistent. Before engaging in efforts to build empathy across the organization, leaders should clarify what they are trying to achieve.
Types of Empathy
Science reporter, psychologist, and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman classifies the various definitions of empathy into three types:
1. Social Empathy: Social empathy involves an emotional lens. It is the ability to sense or mirror another person’s feelings.
Psychiatrists and neuroscientists suggest that the ability to mirror or feel others’ pain is rooted in brain neurons. The hard-wired ability to experience empathy is more significant in some individuals vs. others. Therefore, efforts to build it may fall short with some people.
2. Cognitive Empathy: This slightly different type of empathy is more rational and may be less dependent on brain neurons. It involves increasing understanding of others’ experiences.
The American Psychological Association says empathy is the ability to understand and relate to people from their frame of reference, such as learning to walk in another person’s shoes.
3. Empathic Concern: With empathic concern, the individual is motivated to act. It is the desire to help another person. However the methods for developing it in others aren’t straightforward. Neither feeling others’ pain nor grasping their perspective guarantees an increase in respect, acceptance, and inclination to act.
Change Requires Multiple Types of Empathy
Change consultant Priya Dhingra (Klocek) has worked with companies to strengthen their DEI efforts for many years. She emphasizes the need for greater understanding among individuals. However, Priya says that walking in another’s shoes isn’t always easy.
She claims we are all storytellers. And as such, we invent narratives about the lives of our friends and colleagues in our attempt to understand them.
The danger is in our equating our stories with the truth. Priya cautions, we base the stories we tell ourselves on minimal knowledge of others ‘experiences. Her fix for the problem seems simple: Acknowledge our limitations and listen.
According to Priya, our capacity for empathy lies in our commitment to hearing, at both emotional and cognitive levels, the stories others are willing to share.
Furthermore, we must intentionally follow-up with plans to behave differently as a result of the knowledge and wisdom we gain.
Identifying with Others Can Lead to Action
Professor, speaker, and podcast host, Brenee Brown, notes that empathy can lead us to tap into something personal and identify with others’ struggles.
Perhaps by associating our personal experiences with the others’, we might not only feel their pain but also mirror their anger.
Entrepreneur and business leader, Tawana Bain, claims that a productive form of anger will motivate women, both white and Black, to make a difference in racial equity. She contends that Black women have been angry for a long time. And now, white women are fed up as well.
Through their personal and professional relationships, these allies will pressure men in power to “fix it.”
Empathy Doesn’t Guarantee Organizational Change
No matter how effective, deepening empathy across the workforce is not a panacea for immediate and substantive organizational change. Here is why.
First, change unfolds through stages, not all at once.
Lasting change occurs through a process, not an event. Behavioral change evolves through several stages. Motivations and attitudes alone do not guarantee behavior change. For example, people who want to become healthier don’t always give up their bad habits immediately, if ever.
Likewise, developing empathy for the experiences of others may not translate into different actions in the short-run.
While empathy, no matter what type, may be relevant to building motivations to change, it may not have a meaningful impact on the subsequent stages that lead to new behaviors.
Second, empathy refers to change in individuals and their relationships with others, rather than changes in organizations.
Organizational change requires modifying systems and altering the culture.
Individual empathic responses, while important, cannot defeat race-related problems.
Psychologist Eric Soloman argues that, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, corporations have been quick to express empathy but slow to address the issues at stake. He refers to this widespread practice as “kindwashing,” which he defines as an organization spending more time and money marketing their empathy than attacking inequitable practices.
Significant, long-term change both in individuals and organizations, requires shifts in attitudes, modifications of behaviors, and substantive adjustments of culture, policies, and systems.
Developing empathy across the workforce can be a good start towards change as long as it is recognized as the beginning of a longer process. However leaders must clarify what they mean by empathy and outline their end goals to ensure the effectiveness of their efforts.
Moreover, They should not overestimate the significance of this first step. Long-term change will require exerting great effort with persistence and courage.
Keep the greater and longer-term picture at the forefront while developing the empathy that will draw the workforce into the fight for racial diversity, equity and inclusion.
World News || Latest News || U.S. News