Empathy: A Business Issue? (Review)

by William Reichard on December 22, 2010

The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Amazon affiliate link), by respected futurist Jeremy Rifkin, crosses genres, geographies, and historical epochs to create one of the most encompassing treatises you’re likely to come across from a modern author. Though the book offers insights for many audiences, it may be particularly helpful to call it to the attention of those in business who might otherwise not get to see something outside their usual field of view, especially given that it offers a trove for those who would look past the exigencies of the day to what the future holds and what their actions do to shape it.

A quick definition: “Unlike sympathy, which is more passive, empathy conjures up active engagement—the willingness of an observer to become part of another’s experience, to share the feeling of that experience.” Rifkin argues that it’s an ability at the core of the human species, and as he piles up evidence from history, psychology, physiology, zoology, economics and many more, you may find yourself awed at the empathy on display all around us.

If you think that empathy doesn’t bear on our day-to-day professional lives, for instance, consider something as basic as money in the modern world. Rifkin writes:

“The close ties between commercial and empathic bonds might seem a bit paradoxical, but the relationship is symbiotic. Sociologist Georg Simmel, in his landmark study on The Philosophy of Money, observed that coins are promissory notes based on the assumption of an established collective trust among anonymous parties that guarantees that at some future date the token passed in an earlier exchange will be honored by a third party in a subsequent exchange. It’s instructive to note that when anthropologists study the history of exchange, they find that social exchange virtually always precedes commercial exchange.”

This social exchange is taking place at ever-greater levels: “Each more sophisticated communications revolution brings together more diverse people in increasingly more expansive and dense social networks.”

One of the most important pieces of his argument is that the technology that enables those networks comes at the cost of energy–a cost that has inevitably in the past led to the downfall of the civilizations that built them. With data center energy draws doubling every five years or so and the rapid adoption of electronics around the world, it isn’t hard to believe. It is especially apropos to business because, as he notes, buildings consume most of the energy of carbon fuels. Paradoxically, he argues, it is precisely the society enabled by our energy consumption that makes us aware of the need for sustainability. My friend Diana Driscoll is a great thinker in this regard, integrating green ideas into everything she does entrepreneurially. She’s also a great empathizer, which is no coincidence if you accept Rifkin’s theory. The ability to see the interconnectedness of things is a powerful force.

Rifkin also has a lot to offer those who practice social media (which increasingly means all of us). Given the debates in social media about “authenticity,” for instance, his discussion of our inherent tendency toward conscious self-presentation (e.g., the use of personas online) becomes very helpful:

If human beings are, by their very nature, dramaturgical, then how do we establish the idea of authenticity? If everyone is always consciously, or even unconsciously, playing out multiple roles with different scripts and on different stages, how do we know who the authentic person is behind all of the masks? … While public masks can be used to deceive or hide from one’s true self, they can also allow one to try on other personas, walk in others’ shoes and be exposed to very different people than would be the case if still hemmed in by class and caste status. The freedom to be someone else could allow one to experience another’s plight “as if” it were one’s own and deepen empathic extension. This is what cosmopolitan behavior is all about, at least in part—being comfortable in different roles in different places under different circumstances. If entered into with the notion of broadening one’s exposure to and experiences with others, with the expectation of establishing new, meaningful relationships, the practice enriches one’s identity and becomes transcendent rather than deceitful.

Through unprecedented networking, Rifkin argues, this cosmopolitanism is changing business forever. For example, “Network ways of doing business challenge orthodox market assumptions about self-interest,” a point that dovetails nicely with our earlier review of the recent book The Mesh. Mesh‘s author, Lisa Gansky, could have written this sentence of Rifkin’s: “Economic activity is no longer an adversarial contest between embattled sellers and buyers but, rather, a collaborative enterprise between like-minded players.” In many ways, this is precisely the Triple Bottom Line, but it transcends that concept as well. Rifkin writes of a “Third Industrial Revolution that is ushering in a new era of ‘distributed capitalism’ and the beginning of biosphere consciousness.”

One of the ways that empathy most directly bears on the business question is in human relations. Diversity–made possible by empathy–has become seen as one of the key ways in which companies succeed through recruiting and innovation:

Only companies that have cultures that support diversity will be able to retain the talent necessary to remain competitive.

It’s accepted now that employees’ job satisfaction is most heavily tied to their relationship to their immediate supervisors, so it’s a question of paramount importance. For instance: When Kirk Snyder investigated why employees of gay male managers report dramatically higher levels of job satisfaction than the general public, he suggested it was in part because gay men have to learn “intuitive communication” as they navigate difficult social situations and thus are better able to anticipate and address employee concerns. (This info comes from Snyder’s excellent book The G Quotient: Why Gay Executives are Excelling as Leaders… And What Every Manager Needs to Know.) Given the costs of recruitment and retention, greater empathy thus becomes a potentially direct cost-savings tool.

What’s more, given recent research that the wealthy may be less able to read others’ emotions, as one climbs the corporate ladder, it may take more work to maintain this edge. I have always been struck by the concept of “Level 5″ leaders, who cultivate modesty and a focus on the other. Laugh if you will, but when I watched the CBS Undercover Boss episode involving DIRECTV, I thought I saw that in action. In this case, the show literally puts CEOs in others’ shoes. The lesson also applies to reading one’s audience. Upper-level management can be tone deaf if it’s not focused on hearing. 

If you’re coming from a traditional business background, this book may be a stretch at points. I have an MBA, so I know that businesspeople are rightly skeptical of the touch-feely and the feel-good, and Rifkin sometimes treads perilously close to these with terms like “biosphere consciousness.” Everything he includes, though, is backed up with concrete evidence, sound reasoning and plenty of examples. He approaches the question of the environment, for instance, as a practical issue, looking at it as a shared platform for all human activity–a survival issue–rather than a moral requirement. And business, as the increasingly dominant agent of activity in the modern world, perhaps has a special responsibility–and a unique opportunity. Because while business is the cause of much of our consumption model–

Perhaps the single biggest impediment to the creation of biosphere consciousness is commercial advertising to the very young, which continues to undermine parental nurturing by exploiting the insecurities of the youngest and most vulnerable of the population and, by so doing, keep a materialistic consumer culture alive and robust.

–it is also a means by which we can create the solution:

We are on the cusp of just such a convergence—the coming together of the distributed information and communications technology (ICT) revolution of the past two decades with the distributed renewable energy regime of the twenty-first century. The use of distributed information and communications technology, as the command-and-control mechanism to organize and manage distributed energy, ushers in a powerful Third Industrial Revolution with an economic multiplier effect that should extend well into the second half of the twenty-first century and beyond.

This review really only scratches the surface, as Rifkin roams through academia, through studies of education, the steam engine, the telegraph, the automobile. As long as the book is–and it is a commitment to read–one still leaves with the feeling that he was packing in as much as he could on every page and leaving out as much as he left in. Taken together, it’s a revolutionary way of looking at the human species that any businessperson would be well-served to familiarize him- or herself with. Empathy offers a powerful underpinning for ethical conduct that can better enable businesses to connect deeply with consumers’ needs while at the same time considering the long-term impacts of their business models.

Finally, this post even has a holiday tie-in. We recently watched the George C. Scott version of A Christmas Carol, which sticks close to the original source, and I was reminded of the real muscle of this story, in which fate helps a stingy businessman envision the plight of others — to empathize with them — by providing him a viewpoint he seems unable to muster for himself. He is plucked from his bed and encouraged even to view himself as a character and to ask how he’d like the story to end. Ultimately he is moved to charity, moved to become part of the social world again, transformed. It’s a powerful metaphor.

A very happy holiday season to you, whatever your faith. Thanks for reading, and I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are you favorite examples of empathy in action? Can empathy co-exist with competition?

—-

Will ReichardWill Reichard has an MBA from the University of Mexico and is CEO of CrossCut Communications, LLC, a full-service marketing and communications company with a digital edge. His forte is messaging. From working as an editor at a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper to articulating the selling points of an innovative customer focused nonprofit fundraising organization, he consistently helps to give voice to challenging but mission-critical ideas. He writes a blog on social media, public relations, marketing and technology and was recently invited to be a panelist on personal branding at the prestigious Crittenden National Conference. He is also an award-winning writer who has been published in outlets including Innovation: America’s Journal of Technology Commercialization and National Mortgage Professional Magazine.

  • http://twitter.com/jckhewitt JC Hewitt

    I’ve heard good things about this book before – thanks for the insightful review, Will.

    • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

      My pleasure–thanks to you for reading, JC!

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  • http://www.marcana.com Mark Brimm

    Some people like to hear it one way, others another. It’s an important principle nonetheless. Increasingly, we all seem to come back to people we’ve dealt with down the line. It doesn’t pay not to introduce equity and fairness into all of your relationships no matter how impersonal they may seem. It all comes back to you anyway. Not only is it spiritually stupid to do otherwise, it’s bad for business potential. Certainly the diversity issue applies to bigger companies, but every small mom and pop outfit should really be able to understand fairness and equity in everyday relations with employees and partners.

    • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

      Thanks, Mark–you hit on a point I would have included in a longer review–namely that empathy is the basis of a good customer or employee relationship on any scale. It’s that old golden rule again in some ways.

      Savvy as always, Mark–thanks again.

    • http://twitter.com/dianadriscoll Diana Driscoll

      “Spiritually stupid” — I love that comment, Mark! No matter your level of spirituality, I think we can all relate to something a good friend of mine says — “Karma’s a bitch, baby.”

      • http://www.marcana.com Mark Brimm

        Or better still: everyone has karma, but what are you doing with yours? ;)

  • http://twitter.com/dianadriscoll Diana Driscoll

    Will, what a tremendous review — incredibly packed with information and candid insights. You ask if empathy can coexist with competition, and I am tempted to dovetail empathy and humility while considering this possibility. You mention Jim Collins and his “Level 5 Leaders” paper. As you know, he describes how only the combination of fierce resolve AND humility can create a Level 5 Leader, and out of 1,465 Fortune 500 companies examined, only 11 of them made his study. All 11 companies had a driven yet humble businessperson at the helm. I have no doubt that humility is related to success in a competitive environment, and only intuition hints that perhaps humility and empathy are related.
    I also ponder how empathy may be related to the “intuitive communication” of gay men, who as a whole, appear to excel as managers (and as close friends, my personal thought).
    My favorite examples of empathy include stories of successful business people who have somehow maintained humility and an EQ (emotional quotient) similar to their less wealthy or successful brethren. Empathy sometimes carries (incorrectly, I believe) innuendos of weakness The examples of success in the “Level 5 Leaders” paper are inspiring and clearly indicate that such implications are just plain wrong. I look forward to reading Rifkin’s thoughts on this and how social media has the opportunity to create the very “biosphere consciousness” he suggests.
    Thank you, Will, for encouraging us all to reach higher in our thinking, our reading, and our business lives!

    • http://will.crosscutcommunications.com William Reichard

      Thank you, Diana–I am honored! Such a great point that empathy chips away
      at ego–if we really understand, then it’s hard to feel superior. And in a
      world where we’re taught that the individual is the location of success or
      failure, that strength you describe can be very hard to come by. I’m with
      you–I find those effective but modest leaders incredibly intriguing.

      I will definitely look forward to your thoughts if you read the book–you
      have a unique vantage point. You’re definitely carrying the light! Thanks
      again for the great comment.

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