Why empathy is the future workplace’s key to success


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 and Chris Yates suggest in their 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.

Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships by Linda Jingfang Cai and Chris Yates (Bloomsbury Business, £25).

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.

An internal change is required at the heart of the organisation – there are some things we suggest cannot only be born internally. HR is challenged to exist with an old leadership paradigms from the earliest organisation and work through vertical power and authority. Change efforts can create some awareness or even momentum in the short term, but tend to be siloed and lose relevance quite quickly.

For the urgency of the digitalisation of today, we need to look inside and challenge leaders and employees at all levels to act as role models for empathy and sharing. Increasingly we see organisations that are successful at managing change supplement “top-down” communication of vision and capability-building through training with change networks and leaders who “walk the talk”.

In the highly networked, more fluid organisations of the future, leaders will need new ways to communicate with employees and keep a finger on the pulse of their organisation. It requires high levels of self-awareness and interpersonal skills. It is different from the traditional problem solver or the charismatic “cheerleader” stereotype of leadership.

In Share we suggest a “four D” process for organisations to align and be congruent with empathy, values and purpose:

  1. Discover what is important for each individual to align on purpose;
  2. Define what this means in the context of strategy and how the organisation competes;
  3. Develop a plan to align the purpose values and empathy at the core of how everything is done;
  4. Deployment of ‘how we do things around here’ through the actions of every employee, everyday.

Only through new ways of working with empathy at the core can we prepare individuals, organisations and then wider society to truly tackle the big issues all around us. Share is dedicated to our children and the world they will inherit. We believe that having successful ethical organisations that have empathy at their core will increase the chances of a better world for them.

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Linda Jingfang Cai and Chris Yates

About Linda Jingfang Cai and Chris Yates

Linda and Chris are authors of Share: How Organizations Can Thrive in an Age of Networked Knowledge, Power and Relationships. Linda is the global head of learning and talent development at Aon. Chris is the general manager of learning and development at Microsoft.
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