Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Age of Empathy

In the Harvard Business Review, Rita McGrath has written about the three great ages of management: execution, expertise, and empathy. The execution era was the one when the organization was a machine. The expertise era was the one when executives went from controlling others to coaching them. McGrath argues that we are now in an era when organizations look “to create complete and meaningful experiences”—era of empathy

Empathy extends to customers or consumers but also to employees. Implicit is the idea that management occurs through networks rather than through lines of command. What does this mean for human-service organizations? I propose that it has the following implications.

First, the CEO, president, or director, whatever the title of the top dog, coordinates and integrates decision making, rather than takes input and makes a decision. The sham of participatory decision making, which some CEOs don’t even know to claim, is that the subalterns participate in providing input but actually don’t participate in the decision. In integrated decision making, the team members (e.g., a “leadership” or “management” team) propose decisions and defend them. As decisions are discussed, (a) the team reaches a consensus, (b) the president concludes what the majority decision is, or (c) the president decides which decision is the most evidence based. Unfortunately, still, in many organizations, none of these factors leads to the decision.

Second, the director is more like an anthropologist than a director. He or she explores the culture and makes decisions that advance the service within the context of that culture. In one situation in which I found myself, the CEO paid attention to one cultural group, the board of directors, but not to other cultural groups: families (consumers), the community, and the staff. Self-preservation or COA (covering one’s posterior) is hardly a commendable trait. Today’s administrator should see what’s good for society, however large or small that might be, but I’m referring to the organization. The first priority should be the consumers (children and families), second should be the staff, and third should be community. The last priority should be the president and the board, but that takes possibly uncommon ethics, honor, and confidence. I’m optimistic enough to believe that if decisions are made from a place of empathy, the results will be good.

Third, the era of empathy suggests that organizations’ leaders should function transparently. A very few topics need to be handled discreetly, but a common problem is the director confiding in just one person, amazingly often the finance director. I know the temptation. In an administrative job I once had, I found myself in alliance with my budget person, often against my faculty. The budgetary pressures led to this unfortunate alliance, but I was operating as though we were still in the age of execution, where the budget person and I knew what was best and we exercised control over others. In the age of empathy, leaders should think first about how actions will affect others. 

Circular arguments abound in the leadership of nonprofit organizations, as they do whenever people have to make decisions about what’s best for someone else. In child custody cases, for example, judges make decisions about what’s “in the child’s best interest,” as though that were independent of the parents’ interests. An amazing lack of understanding about family systems theory. And judges rarely consult good research to help determine the child’s best interest. In organizations, CEOs and their sycophantic finance directors justify decisions similarly as being in the “best interest of the organization.” But when those decisions are made secretly, with false arguments to the board, and without empathy for consumers, staff, and the community, it’s difficult to agree they’re in the best interest of the organization.

Of course the easy argument is an economic one. Let’s cut out the thing that costs the most or returns the least, economically. Which is why a business mentality doesn’t work in the nonprofit or academic world. Because that thing might be the best thing going for the organization in terms of quality, reputation, or the overall well-being of the organization. If it is costly, then empathetic leaders (directors, deans, and board members) would realign resources to support that thing.

How is the theory of an “age of empathy” relevant in a leader’s feeling threatened by one or more faculty or staff members? Empathy is probably a convenient word beginning with e, to match execution and expertise. Those of us who grew up in the hippie or just-post-hippie era remember Leo Buscaglia, who wrote, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” Do they teach this in MBA programs? An empathetic CEO is not going to be threatened by someone with heart, intelligence, and drive. Rather, he or she would embrace this person as a strong ally, would learn from this person (ah, but that takes humility!), and would seek this person’s counsel. 
Buenos Aires last week

In conclusion, the age of empathy might be here but some organization leaders aren’t. Board members would be well advised to understand that empathy (genuine, not a histrionic facsimile) is a valuable trait in a president. Presidents would be well advised to practice empathy, to appreciate that relinquishing pride, self-interest, and secrecy actually open up the organization to a state of well-being. Staff would be well advised to determine whether their leaders operate from a place of empathy and, if not, and if they can afford it, leave such a situation. Consumers would be well advised to make the same determination and, if not, make a fuss to the board or whoever controls the purse strings. The time of empathy in management in human services has arrived; it probably arrived a long time ago. We should perhaps now be paying attention to it.