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During my last full-time job as a manager, my colleagues and I were asked to stand in front of the entire company and talk about which corporate values of the company were most popular with us. Our decisions: self-confidence, positive energy, judgment, intellectual honesty and empathy. These values, along with others such as integrity, courage, passion and fun, may seem familiar to me. They are the list of corporate values recorded in corner offices and corridors around the world, even though most employees never know they exist.
"Empathy," said the woman two places away from me. "Because people say I can connect well with other people." Several nods from the crowd of support staff. "Empathy," said the man next to her, a place away from me. "I care about other people and do my best to treat them the way I want to be treated." More nods and some spontaneous clapping. "Intellectual honesty," I said. "Because I'm pretty good at cutting the bullshit." I got a few smiles and nervous laughter, but was mostly greeted with a confused silence. I think I should say "empathy", but I couldn't bring myself to do it. As a branding and executive with an academic psychological background, I may have known a little too much about what the word empathy means. Or rather, how it can mean so many different things – and yet absolutely nothing – at the same time.
For a word that only existed in the English language in the 20th century, empathy has developed into a linguistic superstar. Google’s search for the word has increased steadily since 2004, with the frequency more than doubling in the past decade alone. With the explosion of the global coronavirus pandemic – along with escalating racial tensions – empathy has become embedded in public discourse, often about which political leaders have demonstrated and which have not.
Outside the political ring, large and small companies are obsessed with empathy. Some executives, such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, have a long track record of announcing empathy as a key leader. "We will never be successful … if we don't have a deep sense of empathy," he said. More recently, several news organizations have announced Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky as empathetic with the way he announced layoffs due to COVID-19. "I have a deep feeling of love for all of you," he wrote in an internal company memo. Managers understand that this is good for business. A recent survey by Ipsos (on behalf of PepsiCo Beverages North America) reports that brands 'response to the coronavirus pandemic is affecting more than half of Americans' shopping intentions and that it is now more important for Americans to “empathize with people demonstrate" . ”
All of this makes intuitive sense. Like puppies and rainbows, empathy is one of the things that seem like a pure, absolutely positive result. In his book Against Empathy, Professor Paul Bloom jokes: "You can never be too rich or too thin … or too sensitive." In my view, however, this empathy discourse is missing too much. When I stood in front of this room to talk about my preferred company value, I still don't know exactly what everyone is talking about. Empathy sounds good, but how do we define it? Empathy is omnipresent, but do all companies talk about the same thing? Does a sensitive organization mean doing something or just having feelings?
Answers to these questions are difficult to find in the corporate world. While empathy increasingly appears as part of the company's mission statement, hardly anyone defines what they actually mean. The overriding assumption is that the word simply speaks for itself. (Spoiler alert: not.) The problem with companies that advertise sensitive messages is that while it is easy to talk about good things for employees and customers, it is far more difficult to generate and maintain positive company behavior. In the past, organizations may have received a passport or even praise for sensitive and sensitive internal and public communication. However, given the uncertainty surrounding the future of business and life in general, people are taking notice of how corporate messages align with their actions.
There is enormous collective concern about what our individual futures involve. Some authors have suggested that this certain period of time may cause feelings of sadness and trauma on a large scale. At a time when most of us think about the same things and have many of the same conversations, the concept of widespread empathy is essential. It is therefore no wonder that companies as part of our cultural structure strive to be part of the conversation. Most of them use social media channels to tell us that they care about us as employees and customers and are there for all of us in times of crisis. But these messages are often unfounded and the intentions behind them are often blurred.
It becomes clear that the risk of companies simply talking about empathy without translating these words into measurable, tangible results can lead to disaster. One study after another has shown that employees, especially younger ones, will stop working for companies that are more aligned with their personal values. Similarly, customers are more than happy to spend their money elsewhere and choose organizations that are willing to walk the path, not just the conversation.
Empathy could be one of the most popular scientific research topics of our time. Over the past decade, Google Scholar, which indexes the full text or metadata of academic literature across formats and disciplines, has given nearly 600,000 quotes for the term empathy only. Most academic curiosity about empathy focuses on what it is and how to measure it.
In order to understand the scientific characterization of empathy, social psychologist Judith Hall and scientist Rachel Schwartz published an article in 2019 in which the status of the concept was analyzed in almost 500 independent studies. They concluded that the word empathy should often be avoided entirely because of widespread disagreement about what it means. Instead, people should relate to what they are actually talking about, be it feeling someone else's feelings, reading their emotional clues, taking care of others' misery, hearing their stories, or one of the other various elements which are composed of the empathy wash. "Our goal was not to find mistakes," wrote Hall and Schwartz, "but to illustrate the many ways in which authors try to deal with a construct that is essentially unsolvable." The challenge to the theory is exacerbated by the fact that empathy is alternatively treated as a process, a characteristic, an ability or competence, a reaction or reaction to observing someone else's experience and interpersonal behavior itself. “In other words, research shows mostly that it is dangerous to assume that we know exactly what someone is talking about when talking about empathy.
The business world hardly clears things up. The word is generously applied to what companies say and do, especially as we all continue to grapple with the ambiguity ahead.
Companies spread messages about mutual care in times of uncertainty, with the general indication that "we are there for you" and above all "we are there together!" In response to the senseless police murder of George Floyd and many others, other companies are following similar templates to talk about how they are "solidary", "against racism" and "support for the black community". In a viral tweet, video game author Chris Franklin made fun of the deep uniformity of brand messages:
“We at (Brand) are committed to fighting injustices by posting pictures on Twitter that express our commitment to combating injustices. To that end, we offer this ceremonial white-on-black JPEG, which expresses vague solidarity with the black community, but the details of what is wrong, what needs to be changed, or how we do something about it, are tacit turns out … We hope this action encourages you to see (brand) positively without expecting anything from us. "
Within minutes of discovering this tweet, I saw another from CBS who told me that they "stand in solidarity with our black colleagues, creators, partners and the public and condemn all racist, discriminatory and senseless acts of violence". Another from Pixar let me know that they "stand for inclusion". Fantastic. But what does it mean?
Do not get me wrong. Some companies do more. Several organizations have committed to donating real money to advance the fight against injustice. For example, Walmart has announced that it will allocate $ 100 million over five years to create a new racial justice center. Others, like Ben & Jerrys, have created useful resources for employees and consumers to engage in political movements. That is progress. However, the vast majority of organizations appear to be satisfied with lip service alone – at their own risk.
It is not the first time that companies are in this position. The term greenwashing emerged in 1986 when consumers started to become interested in environmentally friendly companies. The term describes an organization that spends more time and money on marketing itself than is environmentally conscious than it actually uses to minimize its environmental impact. The megaconglomerate Nestlé, for example, has been widely criticized – and there have been more and more expensive lawsuits – for contributing to human rights violations and global plastic pollution. However, the company has spent millions on marketing to achieve positive impacts and "shared value" without sufficiently considering its core business practices.
Similarly, we now see a version of it that we can call child washing: when a company spends more time and money on marketing itself than empathy than on minimizing practices that alienate or exploit employees and consumers. And strangely enough, the word empathy makes it possible because it's so poorly defined. If no one can determine exactly what the word means or what it looks like, companies don't have to worry about managing employee or consumer expectations. Words and actions are left to interpretation.
But people are watching, and there is a widening gap between company leaders and the people who get companies running. For the past four years, the business performance company Businessolver has published annual reports on the level of empathy in the workplace. The results of the 2019 study indicate a remarkable trend: While 92 percent of CEOs say their organizations are empathetic, only 72 percent of employees agree. In the meantime, employees understand where their priorities are: ninety-three percent of employees are likely to stay with a sensitive employer, and 82 percent would consider leaving a job for a more sensitive organization.
Businessolver's authors bypass clear definitions of what they mean by empathy – after all, it's such a slippery word. But the employees clearly recognize the lack of it. In the past year alone, several high-profile companies – from WeWork and Away to Outdoor Voices and Pinterest – have experienced indignation and wear and tear from employees due to immoral business practices that contribute to work environments that have often been described as toxic.
The message to the organizers is that they have to invest more care and effort to engage their employees. This makes economic sense, as studies show that the care of employees is a necessary prerequisite for the establishment and maintenance of a customer culture. This can only happen when managers commit to defining what empathy means to them and how this leads to specific, observable actions.
This is what it means to stop washing children and be kind.
During the global pandemic and the escalating Black Lives Matter movement, we've heard of hundreds of companies that have shown empathy in all the well-known media. However, for the most part, companies react – perhaps because they feel compelled to do so, but perhaps also because “empathy” (however!) Is not an honest part of its core. Without a clear understanding of who they are or why they exist, the words of company leaders will always sound hollow and their processes will become disorganized and ad hoc. A crisis will only increase these problems.
How does an organization fix this? It doesn't respond to the moment. It looks deep inside.
Companies have to create and install a so-called human operating system. In technology, an operating system supports basic functions that enable more complex tasks. We can't play Candy Crush without iOS or Android. Similarly, a human operating system serves as a structural glue that encodes how values like empathy spread across all organizational processes, from internal behaviors, processes and communication to external messages and actions.
The core of a human operating system is a core essence, a central idea. This is what this company or person is about – and it is crucial for error-free execution at all levels, in times of crisis or not. Based on this central idea, an operating system has room to grow. By building a human operating system, the connecting thread from this core to a company's vision, mission and values is strengthened. This requires that leaders and their companies commit to formulating a clear purpose and perspective that lead to more than words in a presentation or on a company website.
Once these basic elements have been codified, installing a human operating system translates words into measures to ensure that all aspects of an organization's efforts are synchronized and consistent. Just as a technology operating system controls every part of a computer, a human operating system controls business actions holistically – from the setting and evaluation of performance management to programs, offers, services, thought leaders, partnerships, customer experiences, brand expression and external communication. By creating and installing a human operating system, companies and their executives can align what they say with what they actually do. This is a first step in stopping child washing.
Companies that talk about the concept of empathy usually do this because a company executive – usually the founder or the CEO – believes that caring for employees and customers is not mutually exclusive in order to make a profit. At least that should be their ambition. A challenge for company managers in companies of all sizes: If your HR or marketing team wants to express empathy as a company value, it is the task of a manager to model this behavior. This prompts executives to explicitly clarify what empathy means to them, and then set specific actions they will take for employees and customers to demonstrate their commitment to these actions.
For example, in a recent LinkedIn article, Jeff Jones, President and CEO of H & R Block, responded to the Black Lives Matter movement on behalf of the Senior Leadership Team and agreed to take action. "This is much more than a moment – this is a movement," he wrote, promising, among other things, to broaden the company's hiring practices. I called him to ask about H & R Block's process, and he said he was starting an honest review of where the company had gaps. “In order to close these gaps, you have to know exactly where the problems lie,” he says, “and set clear, specific goals according to functions. It is not political. It's about focusing on people and individuals. "This last part is key. Jones demonstrates that the best way to model behavior is to do what most of us were taught in first grade: listen. Not really. Listen.
Carl Rogers and Richard Farson coined the term active listening in 1957 and wrote: “Active listening is an important way to bring about change in people … (it) causes changes in people's attitudes towards themselves and others; it also brings changes in their core values and personal philosophy. “Hearing someone is easy; active listening is hard work. It requires our full mental capacity, so listening actively is as hard as it is rewarding. At a time when companies are confused about how to behave, it is important to remember something so simple and basic. Active listening means paying close attention to how employees and customers are doing. It means taking the time to understand how they feel and why they feel that way. This is not about investing shrinking budgets in large research studies. It's about taking the time to understand what empathy is trying to solve before jumping to a suspected solution.
When massive cultural moments come in, brands react quickly, react and post. There seems to be almost a hidden, driving belief that the quickest move will win the top prize for higher employee retention and customer loyalty. For this reason, we have received all of these "We are here for you" emails from brands with which we have not interacted for years when COVID-19 was first released. The reality is that active listening deliberately takes time and effort. It means difficult conversations with employees and customers. Intent, discussion and engagement are at the heart of what it means to actively listen to employees and consumers alike.
Not only that, but also active listening is at the core of what it means to create, install and activate a human operating system for an organization or the leader of an organization. The news of the past few months has left a trail of warning stories. One is from Elon Musk, who repeatedly made decisions against the will of his employees. In one case, he reopened a California Tesla factory despite local health officials. He said employees were not required to return if they felt uncomfortable, but two Tesla employees said they were fired when they chose not to return. Later, when Musk was unusually silent at the start of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, Tesla employees threatened a peaceful rally commemorating Juneteenth. This prompted Musk to announce that Juneteenth "will be seen as a US holiday on Tesla and SpaceX in the future," unlike large companies such as Nike, Target, Adobe, Lyft, and Spotify, which only gave employees the day off, Musk said that his staff would do this must take a day off to commemorate Juneteenth.
Musk is known for his diverse views on a variety of topics, but his leadership behavior is checked because he doesn't listen – health professionals, workers, and consumers. Musk may be convinced of his beliefs, but he sticks to an outdated operating system that conflicts with employer and customer values because he doesn't take the time to understand what other people are feeling. Failure to do so may or may not affect Tesla's financial performance. However, this leads to more employees speaking up and leaving their companies for those who better align themselves with their personal values.
Compare Musk's leadership style to that of Kenneth Chenault, who served as CEO and chairman of American Express until 2018. He should often consult with his teams and ask questions such as: “Who is listening to you? How many people respect you "He used a similar method of listening to American Express customers. He often organized spontaneous listening tours and worked with customer service teams to better understand and continually improve the quality of service and support that consumers would receive This enabled him to demonstrate friendliness and care through measurable, observable and results-oriented measures – and the company flourished during his 17-year tenure as a company manager.
Sometimes I think about corporate life and think about the meeting where I was asked to explain my preferred company value. If I had had the right time to think about it, I might have answered differently instead of trying to make an unforgettable joke. I could have said "empathy". Then I might have said something like, "I'm going to say empathy because I think it's really important. But I don't know – because I'm not sure what we really mean when we say it. I wonder whether this would be a good time for us to define what empathy means to us and then discuss how we will be accountable for it. "
This answer may not have given my colleagues much empathy. But at least it would have come from a good place.