Is empathy the most critical skill of this century?

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Gig economy.

App economy.

Knowledge economy.

Sharing economy.

On-demand economy.

Entrepreneurial economy.

We call this era a lot of things. How about the “Team Collaboration Economy?”

Here’s why!

The rising importance of team collaboration

A guy who’s pretty good at making this point is Digital Tonto, i.e. Greg Satell. In an article called “The New Era Of Mass Collaboration,”he makes this argument at the very end:

The truth is that today the possibilities of many technologies far exceed the ability of any one firm to capitalize on them. So they key to competitive advantage is no longer to optimize value chains, but to extend capabilities through collaboration, either directly or through platforms. In a networked world, the best way to become a dominant player is to be an indispensable partner.

I’d largely agree, because “indispensable partner” speaks to relationships, and supposedly relationships are everything for business right now. So that lines up. But there’s one elephant in the room…

Team collaboration vs. the value of competition

The problem is, this focus on collaboration is a very new way of thinking. For years business was cost centers, revenue streams, and beating the crap out of your rival for 0.0002 of market share.

Unfortunately, many guys still running companies cannot get past this focus on competition. It’s very important to them to have “rivals” and “enemies” that they “kill”. In some ways, this is the closest thing these guys have to real fun, potentially even including their children’s accomplishments.

It’s impossible for a team collaboration — or cross-company collaboration — focus to rise up when the true focus of the “stakeholders”is on competition.

But wait, what about technology and platforms?

Right, right. We do live in a platform economy now, where it’s more about the resources you can access than necessarily the ones you control. (Industries like oil and gas are a bit different in this regard, but not much.)

Here’s another one from Satell, including this:

That’s why Geoff Colvin argues in Humans Are Underrated that the most critical 21st century skill is empathy and calls for a shift in emphasis from “knowledge workers” to “relationship workers.” In a world of exponentially increasing complexity, no one person or firm can do it all, so those that can work well with others have a distinct advantage.

Right. We live in a time of VUCA — uncertainty for all! — and companies being more empathetic is often tied to revenue, so it would stand to reason this is a good path to go down. We need more team collaboration and we can make more money. Yaaaaaas?

Oh wait, a second elephant just sauntered into the room.

What if people don’t really want to collaborate?

That’s been proven in some research, which makes sense because (a) everyone is different, (b) people get on each other’s nerves easily, and © incentive structures are often flawedin companies. Consistent team collaboration only works if the rewards doled out seem to be fair (i.e. career advancement opportunities). When they’re not fair (often case), who wants to collaborate with Mike the Buffoon from Operations anymore? We all know Mike will get promoted because he’s sleeping with the CFO’s daughter even though he barely carries a 5-pound weight on the project. Politics and incentives need to be aligned for collaboration models to work.

What’s the net-net here?

Team collaboration is crucial, for sure. And companies collaborating with each other on platforms is a big deal, too. But for it to work internally or externally, here’s what you need:

  • Decision-makers that aren’t super focused on killing the competition
  • Incentive structures that make sense, happen semi-frequently, and appear to be fair
  • A relatively low degree of politics
  • Managers who know how to encourage collaboration instead of micro-managing it or fighting over silos

Most organizations do 1 or 2 of those, but it’s very rare one does all four. And that’s why, even though team collaboration makes a ton of sense, it’s probably still a bit far off for many companies.

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