Empathy to Ethics: Where Heart Meets Business
A Key to Emotional Intelligence
From time to time I post guest blogs when they contribute to the dialogue about ethics in the workplace. Today's guest blog is by Charlie Fletcher. Here is a link to her online portfolio: Stories by Charlie Fletcher : Contently.
This blog was first issued in February but got cut off somehow so I am reposting it.
You’ve probably heard about empathy and ethics in business. Almost every major brand is currently running an “ethical” marketing campaign, and business leaders are doubling down on their commitment to ethics.
But empathy and ethics should be about more than marketing campaigns — they should guide all your business decisions.
However, many workplaces still run on a complex labyrinth of “unwritten” rules, and it can be hard to know how to start building towards a more ethical business model.
Well, simply put, the path towards ethics starts with empathy.
What is Empathy?
Empathy, at its most basic, is “the ability to experience and relate to the thoughts, emotions or experience of others.” This means that leaders who empathize with their employees should actively strive to understand their employee’s perspectives and should aim to “walk in their shoes”.
However, it’s worth noting that empathy is not the same as sympathy. In the words of Brené Brown, empathy “fuels connections”, whereas sympathy “drives disconnection”. That’s because empathy pushes us to “feel with” people, so we actively participate in fellow humans' feelings and the reasons behind them. Whereas sympathy lets us off the hook and allows us to disconnect from the person who may be suffering or trying to overcome a challenge.
In an age where social media allows for greater transparency, all managers, leaders, and employees must understand the value of empathy and strive to improve their empathetic skills.
A Critique of Empathy
Before you jump into your next board meeting and ask the suits to start “sharing their truths” with you, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with some of the valid critiques of empathy that exist.
In particular, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, makes a compelling case against empathy.
For Bloom, the issue with empathy is that it doesn’t give us the scope to think consciously about the decisions we make. He states that empathy occurs when one person is “feeling the feelings of other people.” This means that empathy is a kind of lightning rod for emotion — we simply “feel” what others are feeling, but don’t necessarily commit any conscious effort towards understanding that other person or their feelings.
Of course, this is an issue for decision-makers. Business leaders certainly can’t expect to make wise decisions based on “feelings” alone. Instead, Bloom advocates for a kind of “compassion” that forces us to consider another person’s perspective before we make decisions.
This is particularly useful when we think about large, political decisions that will be made in the coming years. We can’t continue to follow leaders who stoke hatred through manipulations of “empathy”. Instead, we need leaders who are, in the words of Bloom, “rational deliberators motivating by compassion and care for others”
Bloom's argument is certainly compelling on the scale of politics, but it might not be as well suited to the interpersonal relationships that guide decision-making in our everyday lives. This is something Bloom speaks to himself. Bloom recognizes that empathy is biased, but this bias isn’t necessarily a problem — after all, surely we should care more about our kids and loved ones than other folks we meet?
There’s another issue at play here: definitions. As mentioned earlier, most business leaders define empathy like Brené Brown (empathy is a starting point that fuels connections). Whereas Bloom seems to be combining his definition of empathy and sympathy, which mutes the transformative power of empathy.
So, perhaps the answer isn’t to completely do away with empathy but to treat it with a modicum of suspicion. This means that we must recognize our biases and seek to go beyond simply “feeling” what another person feels and translate empathy to ethics in your workplace.
Translating Empathy into Ethics
There’s nothing worse than organizations who make commitments to maligned or misrepresented groups, then fail to follow through on those commitments. You suddenly realize that those “commitments” were little more than a marketing ploy and didn’t represent a meaningful investment to the organization that made the promises.
Instead, companies must seek to actively transfer empathetic insights into real, material changes in the workplace. Here are a few ways businesses can achieve that goal:
Code of Ethics
Many companies run on a complex code of “unwritten rules”. This is a problem, as, without clear guidelines, employees can misinterpret company culture and can create ethical nightmares like a ship without a rudder. To overcome this, your businesses should create a clear, easy-to-follow code of ethics.
New employees are keen to fit in and will often adopt a second skin to ensure that their personality matches the culture of a new workplace. This sounds rather Machiavellian, but it allows you to create a more just, ethical workplace.
When training employees, try to help new hires understand their larger ethical purpose while working for your business. You can do this by establishing your company’s “why?”. For example, if you work in retail, your company “why?” might be to serve customers who are looking to improve their confidence and style. Therefore, you should train employees on how to best serve all customers from multiple backgrounds equally. This will help your workers understand their larger purpose and will help you run a more ethical business.
Some jobs are like minefields for empaths or those who care about the ethics of their workplace. If this feels familiar, it may be time to shift careers towards ethically-guided roles like medical billing and coding which require a key combination of hard and soft skills like conflict management and attention to detail.
We’ve all heard the idiom “put your money where your mouth is.” This could not be truer for businesses. Before a business or leader makes symbolic commitments to a cause, they should be certain that they are willing to make a meaningful material investment to back it up — or risk being accused of “ethical washing”.
The path towards an ethical workplace is bumpy and long — but it starts with empathy. Empathy gives you a window into someone else's experience and allows you to start thinking from the perspective of all your stakeholders. This will pay off in the long run, as you’ll avoid legal trouble, and find that your employees are happier, more motivated, and kinder to one another.
This blog was written by Charlie Fletcher. You can contact her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.