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Why empathy is the future workplace’s key to success

Linda Jingfang Cai

02/06/2020

The secret to business agility lies in the ability to build empathy, establish ways of working that allow collaboration, and align employees on a clear set of common purposes and ethics, Linda Jingfang Cai suggests in her new book.

I had to teach each of my children to share. I found the best way to do this is not by coercion or fear but helping them put themselves in each other’s shoes, to have empathy for the day that they in turn needed something back. Learning to empathise and to share is a process.

We increasingly are wired for fear, not empathy. Social media now determines what we hear, who we interact with and what we believe. It reinforces our opinions through filtered information instead of challenging our opinions by presenting a variety of perspectives and evidence.

As HR professionals, we increasingly treat employees and free expression as a risk that needs to be managed. We are living in the volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world that is polarised by conflicting views instead of a single truth. We all have a sense of unease and anxiety.

Post fourth industrial revolution, we will see the biggest impact of intensified globalisation and digitalisation in the following areas:

  1. The pace of change and the disruption of traditional industries and business models – for example, new distribution models, digital platforms and robotics have completely reshaped our high streets. Uneven wealth distribution in rich and developed societies is growing, not shrinking
  2. Relationships in the workplace are now being built through social media, employee advocacy and dynamic online affiliations. However, we have yet to find effective ways of replicating the same degree of trust and common purpose that were created in physical human interactions
  3. Traditional corporations not prepared to compete when the ‘old’ ways of centralised power, top-down hierarchy and command-and-control have changed. Younger generations of workers are used to instant access to information and getting things done through networks not committees. They call for great transparency, speed of transformation and a fresh need for ethics.

The consequences of these might be:

  1. Widespread anxiety and fear about future opportunities for employment and economic mobility
  2. Growing distrust towards organisations and of each other as new or old fracture lines are exposed, as well as less rational ways of how we resolve conflict. As we know, fear chemically impedes our ability for perspective
  3. Confusion on how to come together in the context of climate change and other big issues, which are tied to the behaviors and ethics of our corporations.

These changes affect us as individuals and our corporate performance and, in turn, impact our society. But what can we as HR professionals do?

We need to fully own our role in enabling individuals to realise their potential and in enhancing organisational performance. And it starts with a focus on empathy and a sharing mindset.

In our new book Share we propose creating a human-centric approach for organisations to compete differently. The organisations we work in shape the lives of the communities we serve.

We can start, from the inside out, to promote empathy-based relationships within our organisations – starting with personal dialogues at the core. This approach can then be used to prepare our organisations to think about the impact of our actions, to ensure we think through the unintended consequences of decisions we increasingly have to make with less information and with little context.

Historically, CEOs and executives have focused on external boards, shareholders and markets when it comes to communicating critical decisions or managing change, but can’t always internally align its people. A common mistake is perhaps simply relying on the help of a limited number of experts, through consultants or other change agents hired from outside. That was never going to be enough.

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