Empathy and Understanding, or, Results: A clear case of “And” versus “Or”
Can you have it all with the Human Side of Digital Disruption?
I have read several articles recently about the need for empathy and understanding in the workplace. Fortune Magazine, McKinsey Insights, and LinkedIn have all had them. It is often related to the needs and wants of millennials; a generation that wants to make a difference, have a better work-life balance, and is always connected. The pleas for empathy and understanding come from the knowledge that our fast-paced world is shifting. Millennials and digital disruption are creating great opportunities for new business models with seamless service and delivery, disrupting a lot of current mainstay businesses that have built their empires over decades of inch-by-inch strong growth: Uber vs. Taxi Cabs, Tesla vs. VW, or Salesforce vs. Microsoft.
All of these forces demand the need for us to get into the digital world and understand what the effects and implications are for us, our companies, and our people. We believe that becoming a digital company will affect almost everything: technology, people, and process. This disruption will create huge gaps in what we do today vs. what we need to do to serve our customers competitively. In order to shift rapidly we have to lead the change and harness the power of our people as opposed to allowing “passive resistance” to maintain the status quo. After all, we all know that change is hard. And current research in neuroscience shows why this is true, with the caveat that with neuroplasticity, change is possible.
So many pundits are espousing that leaders everywhere have to develop emotional intelligence and empathy so they can understand their people; however, they lecture about what these skills are without applying them to real outcomes. And of course, there are always naysayers who think we are just coddling people, especially the Millennial generation, and should get busy executing with our heads down and a smile on our face. They believe that spending too much time on soft skills, understanding people, rewarding, and celebrating things just takes time away from driving real results, and therefore, a waste of time. It is an interesting juxtaposition, but as we identified in our book, The Art of the Nudge, we believe that too often in our world, the dialogue is framed around the word “or.” Empathy or hard work, change fast or stay the same, Leadership or Management, as well as many other black and white arguments. However, true dialogue should be a discussion of both sides of the issue, trying to understand why. With this kind of discussion, more often than not, the word “and” will become more appropriate as we see the need for both sides.
At CI² we believe that true innovation comes from creative conflict and that smart people need to be able to disagree agreeably. When they do, they often come up with a 3rd alternative that combines the best of both worlds. In this debate we think that leaders and others do have to develop the human skills for the 21st century. We identify these skills as empathic understanding, collaboration, inspiration, and innovation. We also believe that the only reason to develop these skills is to unlock the massive hidden potential of your people to drive change, delivering performance and results. All initiatives have to be linked to real business outcomes: increased revenue and profit, delighting customers, and engaging employees in a way to increase shareholder value (public or private). The way to do this is not by focusing people on rote, repetitive tasks. Most jobs with high components of thoughtless repetition in manufacturing, service industries, healthcare, and financial organizations can be done by automated systems, robots, or algorithms. Quite honestly, they can and should be automated for better quality, lower error rates, and less stress on individuals as Geoff Colvin discusses in his new book Humans Are Underrated. So what can humans do to innovate and provide value? We think it is building strong relationships with other people; using their creativity to collaborate on new ideas, business models and processes; and leading people to implement and change quickly to survive. We do not yet see a world of work without people, just companies with either inspired employees who are “crushing it” or companies with unmotivated employees giving 50% and stuck in their old behaviors. We think a combination of 21st century leadership skills used to align and agree on the needed business results with behaviors to drive these results is the work of leaders. Leaders will need to have both the human skills of empathy and understanding and the business skills to help people focus on work that delivers real results and change. Most training programs today focus on one or the other and do not show you how to develop the human skills while applying them specifically to drive superior results.
We predict that digital disruption will, over time, affect every business known today. Most of us will not be the inventors of new models but will be in older companies that need to adapt and change. We will need everyone to embrace change and lead to be relevant in the new world. If you are a leader or want to be a leader we are issuing you a call to action. Start learning yourself and building leaders today.