The Empathic Civilisation

The above video triggered some interesting thoughts for me on the links between empathy and organisational change: Rifkin suggests here that “Empathy is our ability to show solidarity with each other” and that is it “grounded in our rooting for each other to flourish and be.”
There is a wealth of research in the field of evolutionary psychology suggesting empathy exists because it helps those that have it to survive. It is easy to imagine how an ability to put ourselves in each others’ shoes and root for each other has helped us to co-ordinate our interests, collaborate and organise. And it is easy to take this a step further and imagine how organised, collaborating, empathetic individuals gave themselves a load of advantages over others.

How does empathy work? By listening to each other, we can better understand each others motivations. This allows us to create knowledge, understanding and meaning that enables co-ordination of our actions. In other words, empathetic dialogue is all about historical/hermeneutic knowledge.

This is nothing new in itself. Iban Mayo was championing the idea of listening to employees and allowing them to engage in the change process as far back as the 1930s. The issue is that much recent literature still relies on Taylorist notions of rational managers identifying the correct path for change and overcoming resistance from employees who are attached to the status quo. There is an unspoken fear on the part of managers that allowing employees to design their own change will lead to off-the-wall suggestions, founded on employees’ rational pursuit of laziness and self interest.

But thinking of ourselves as empathetic first and rational second suggests there is a lot more give in the system. It suggests that in the face of external change, we are not inclined to steadfastly pursue our own self-interest, but that we are “soft-wired” to find a new way of working together.

So, assuming collaboration is still sensible in changed circumstances, people are pre-disposed to find a way to make it work. Facilitating an empathetic discussion will enable people to make sense of the change and build the hermeneutic knowledge they need to give their best in the new environment.

Letting go is always frightening for a manager, but thinking of employees as empathetic human beings is a very helpful first step.

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