Use 2023 to infect your workplace with empathy

23rd January 2023

As we begin the new year, most of us return from the beach with restored energy and stirring visions of what we can accomplish at work. So what actually would be wonderful to accomplish this year?

I don’t know whether organisations filled with empathic people do better on the bottom line than those ruled by envy, cruelty, spite and revenge (although I suspect they do), but they surely contribute far more to human happiness. Is happiness not a great return on investment to put alongside the financial return?

Of course, in the year ahead we have to find ways to grow margins, keep costs under control and explore new sources of revenue. That’s our job. But it’s a much better and more enjoyable job when we also grow talent, keep conflict under control and explore new ways to add to human and environmental health and happiness.

After all, why should words like joy and happiness not be part of our strategic goals? And why should encouragement, affirmation and forgiveness not form part of our plan? It may not be taught in the textbooks, but leaders transcend theory to promote what is of absolute value.

In his 2009 book, Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin uses the words empathy and entropy to represent the conflict between good and evil that humans have recognised from pre- history. Rifkin uses “entropy” to represent the threatening planetary collapse of ecological and human systems through unsustainable use of energy, weapons of mass destruction, exposure to disease, etc. But he draws on research to suggest that humans are naturally wired for empathy rather than aggression and self-interest.

He even suggests that we are entering an Age of Empathy, if as a species we can win the race against the forces of entropy.

This is on the global scale. Few of us have the opportunity to impact countries, never mind the destiny of the human species; but all of us can influence our colleagues.

Paradoxically we might succeed better if we don’t mention this goal of love too explicitly. When the boss says, “Thou shalt spread love and happiness”, staff will cynically look for the catch and may fake their commitment to the boss’s wishes. They may begin competing with the practised warmth of their smiles, snidely exposing the hypocrisy in their rival’s altruism, instructing their reports how to fake empathy, and adopting all the right vocabulary. The cynical result could be worse than honest meanness.

Instead we can simply be the different company we dream of, creating conditions in which empathy can thrive and, when appropriate, finding sincere words with which to encourage others.

Is this utopian? Not at all. I have seen it emerge in several companies I have been fortunate to be associated with. Of course it is never perfect, but with persistent, patient emphasis, people begin to relax into a way of being that almost all of us prefer.

In his book Human Kind: A Hopeful History, the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman systematically debunks the reports on which many of us base our assumption that human nature is essentially selfish. He argues that, despite the corrupting effect of power, the evidence points to human nature being innately good and decent. He urges us to own our desire to be kind.

Even if empathy does not contribute to the bottom line, what a wonderful contribution to make with our lives this new year. And maybe if enough of us quietly spread goodness it may infect the country and make 2023 the watershed when we turned the corner back to being a good country that cares for its people. Let’s assume this is our shared nature. What a wonderful vision with which to infect our own minds and the thoughts of our colleagues this
new year.

This is a coaching columns for Business Day, published on 17 December 2022 (https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2023-01-17-jonathan-cook-use-2023-to-infect-your-workplace-with-empathy/)

Jonathan Cook, a counselling psychologist, chairs the African Management Institute. If you’d like to read previous columns in this series or ask Jonathan a question please visit http://www.africanmanagers.org/jonathan-cook

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