When a company uses the word “empathy,” what do they really mean?

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This is what they actually mean:

At the same time, corporations have been driving the idea for empathy. As they are looking to market things to us — one-to-one — as opposed to the mass-media commercials, they’re calling that empathy, which may be a bastardization of the term.

This is very important to understand.

Many corporate terms don’t mean what they sound like

“White papers” are “sales documents.”

“Employee engagement” is often “a way to keep base salaries down.”

“Executives” are often “completely clueless about how the work gets done, not actually driving the work.”

“Culture” is “what you permit to happen as everyone attempts to control each other.”

“Mission” is “a word you use in meetings precisely because it cannot be defined easily.”

And now, “empathy” is essentially a marketing ploy.

Why is this a bad thing, though? Don’t companies need to market and sell?

Of course. But the thing is, empathy underscores the entirety of the human condition — to the point that it’s probably more important than critical thinking, which everyone thinks is super important. I think empathy is so important that, in the last five years, the longest I’ve ever spent on one post is this one: “Can we teach empathy, especially to adults?” Read it. Lot of research in there.

When “empathy” becomes another buzzword/tool/tactic/supposed “strategy” for the dudes at the top of a company, that’s no bueno to me.

Here’s an example you’ve probably seen

Most companies have someone — usually a woman, actually — who kinda makes the trains run. She knows the people, the stakeholders, the schedules, how they like to work, etc.

Without this person, the entire senior leadership team would probably collapse. They’d have no idea what was going on.

Sometimes this woman is rewarded, usually once a year, with a nice bonus or some perks. Maybe around Christmas?

Most of the rest of the year, though, this is what you’ll see in-between meetings and at trade shows:

  • Dismiss her as “an admin”
  • Salary doesn’t change much
  • No real empathy for stuff going on outside of work in her life, because her time needs to be making these idiots look better

I’ve met this woman at literally every job I’ve had. Without her, the guys who make the most money (and decisions) would barely be able to get up in the morning and, yet, there’s almost no empathy towards her except “Here’s a check at Christmas.”

But work isn’t set up to be empathetic, is it?

No, not at all. Anthropologically, actually, work isn’t set up logically at all. And companies notably don’t operate according to moral norms like reciprocity, so why would we expect empathy to be at scale in a corporation?

The goal is often accrual of more things — resources, money, etc. That almost runs directly counter to empathy.

Could we make companies more empathetic?

Sure. It’s an uphill battle, but sure.

  1. Tie it to revenue.
  2. Develop ways for leaders to care about the concept.
  3. (See №1 to help them care.)
  4. Rinse and repeat.

Beyond a bottom-line tie, nothing will really work. You need to always remember this flow:

  1. A suite of predominantly men make decisions at most organizations.
  2. Those men often can make more from bonus than base.
  3. The bonuses are contingent on the financial returns.
  4. Those decisions and meetings are now unabashedly what they prioritize.
  5. Anything about “empathy” feels like “a HR thing,” where it will die a slow process death.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

Once you realize that flow, you know that everything needs a bottom-line tie if it’s going to be respected as an idea. This is the same way you fix onboarding.

What else would you add on empathy in companies?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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