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The Empathic Workplace: Re-imagining America in the 21st century Part 1

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Excerpt: The Empathic Workplace: Re-imagining America in the 21 Century is a two-part creative non-fiction public essay on generational time-binding between Boomers (b. 1946 – 1964) and Millennials (b. 1982 – 2002). Its focus is empathy at work. In particular, it undertakes to pluck empathy from the shadows of yesterday and place it at the forefront of emerging Millennial leadership in the workplace as a natural outcome of Boomer—Millennial generational development. This is Part 1.

Yesterday

My young adult life in America was punctuated with the likes of Masterpiece Theatre, the Godfather I & II, and Siskel and Ebert. I learned much about myself and the world by watching the ‘illuminati’ of the day.

By tuning into Siskel and Ebert on Sunday nights, I discovered my love of film and its ability to reflect life and perhaps create change in society. The Godfather I & II showed me how to use storytelling as a means of creating commonality between unmarried minds. Masterpiece Theatre, currently known as Masterpiece Classic, helped me develop a sense of belonging; after which, I developed a sense of perspective about the world.

Massive societal change by young adults, the Baby Boomers (Boomers, b. 1946 to 1964), was a hallmark of the 1970s. The cultural transformation of the time, which was a paradigm shift in values and beliefs, was reflected in television, film and journalism. New values and beliefs fanned out in front of us Boomers at every juncture as we moved against a rigid, stuck society (perceived and actual) – and move, we did in monolithic proportions.

Yet, I remember a defensive tactic; an unquestioned stance by those of us who were destined to transform American culture. We drew a line in the sand; a psychic line that appeared necessary at the time and was deemed impermeable.

The line denounced others before us; for one, those who had lived great lives and saved the world, the GI Generation. Don’t trust anyone over thirty became our calling card. It was a dumb move.

It was only when I reached a certain age and depth of experience in life that I understood fully the concept of generational time-binding and its importance to societal development. Time-binding, a concept derived from General Semantics and coined by Alfred Korzybski, is the process of transferring knowledge, consciously and unconsciously, from one generation to another.

We could have done a better job of consciously time-binding during the Baby Boom transformation. We were simply too self-saturated and our nation too socially striated to appreciate collective knowledge welled up in previously pooled resources.

Today

The Millennial Generation (Millennials, b. 1982 to 2002) seems to be a beneficiary of what we Boomers learned about change as we progressed through life; i.e., what worked and what didn’t. For example, Millennials are quietly self-reflective and incorporating where we were ‘throw-it-in-your-face’ castaways of tradition. Millennials calmly and collectively ‘heave ho’ at the grass roots level where we divided our house into two camps; e.g., Liberals and Conservatives, and ‘punched it out’ on our way to creating a new America.

It’s not that our change efforts didn’t work and theirs has worked bar none. It’s that there’s more than one way to skin a cat and integrating generational knowledge rather than ignoring it is a superior learning process.

Time-binding has given the Millennials the ability to fly where Boomers walked. Our prowess and our times are different – our goal: a re-imagined America – is not. We can learn from each other and create anew if we stop defending turf and start planting seeds. We can walk there or fly there, together.

As a means to transport our minds to unity, we can use the art of storytelling. Storytelling as a time-binding agent has been primal to building community among humans from ancient times. The stories we tell create psychic links that bind us together emotionally. They cultivate shared meaning. They can give rise to a sense of shared purpose; greater or lesser, personal, familial, organizational or generational.

Creating a story begins with asking a question (of which we may be aware – or not). Here is one with regard to re-imaging America: What generational story are the Baby Boomers telling about the meaning of their lives now that they are elders? In other words, what is the philosophical legacy of the Baby Boom generation?

Our legacy is, in fact, a meta-story (a story within a story). A meta-story reflects an underlying theme that flows throughout a storyline. In the case of the Baby Boomers of yesterday, there is a collective meta-story which echoes an allegiance to becoming ever more human against the deep well of sterile cultural conformity of their youth.

In other words, the Baby Boomer meta-story is a story about cultivating empathy (that which makes us human) amid ongoing strife.

I, for one, write their stories down for posterity. In and out of workplaces and coffee houses I go, listening, laughing and lamenting all the while scribbling.

Here’s one of my favorite stories about a Boomer, Jeanine, cultivating empathy in the workplace, my bailiwick as an organizational communication consultant:

‘Think about what you’re doing’

Robin, a recently hired Human Resources (HR) manager at a local hospital, doesn’t like Tammy, her assistant. Not because Tammy doesn’t do her job, but because Tammy doesn’t dress well. Robin wants to fire Tammy and hire a new assistant that dresses professionally.

Tammy, a mother of six kids, relies on her job to feed her family. Tammy and her husband get by, barely. Jeanine, the HR Director and Robin’s boss, has worked with Tammy for six years in her department. She knows Tammy does a good job at work. She knows Tammy doesn’t dress well. She knows Tammy needs her job.

Jeanine: ‘Tammy does her job. She needs to work. She has kids to feed. You’re not going to fire her unless you have a valid reason.’

Robin: ‘I want to hire an assistant of my own. Tammy doesn’t fit in.’

Jeanine: ‘Think about what you’re doing.’

Robin shrugs off the remark. Jeanine refuses to budge. Tammy keeps her job.

I witnessed Jeanine and Robin’s exchange. It was emotionally distressing for me because I could see what was at stake. Certainly, the fate of Tammy’s family was hung out on a limb. Yet, as a consultant, I also understood the ramifications a lack of empathy has on organizational culture; in particular, Robin’s lack of empathy on the culture of the hundred-year old community hospital where she worked. It was being dehumanized by her decision; one of many being made with eroded empathy in the workplace.

Empathic Workplace

Workplaces are by definition human workplaces. It is our capacity for empathy that makes them so. When we speak of becoming more human at work we are, in essence, alluding to the need to be more empathic.

What is empathy? A practical definition, and therefore, one that is useful to the work world, can be found in The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2009) by Simon Baron-Cohen, Ph.D.

‘Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. This suggests there are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response’ (p. 16).

Empathy in organizations can be viewed on a culture continuum. Culture reflects WIGO (what is going on) at the level of the whole. Other views of empathy in organizations would reflect a part of the whole, e.g., a leadership continuum. Partial views are relevant to the workplace; however, the culture continuum will give us a broad and deep view of how people at all levels consistently relate to each other.

Brief Descriptions of Organizational Culture Via Empathy Recognition and Response (Levels 1 to 5):

An Organizational Communication Approach*

(A) Ghostly: People do not relate. Communication is disconnected. Focus is diffused. Recognition of thoughts and feelings within the self is unacknowledged. Response within the self goes unnoticed. Empathic recognition of other people’s thoughts and feelings and empathic response to other people, if any, are superficial and fleeting.

(B) Bullying: People relate through domination or submissiveness. Communication is connected primarily through hostile-aggressive or passive-aggressive reactions. Focus is on the self (‘bully’) as subject and the other (‘victim’) as object. Empathic recognition of other people’s thoughts and feelings is denied. Empathic response to other people, if any, is feigned or invalidated.

(C) Muddled: People relate through disorganized chaos and confusion. Communication, focus and empathic recognition and response vary in expression from Levels 1 to 5 depending upon WIGO in the moment.

(D) Intact: People relate with clarity. Communication is connected. Focus is on the self as subject, the other as subject and the wider world as object. There is empathic recognition and response as needed.

(E) Inspired: People relate joyfully. Communication is deeply connected and enlivening. Focus is on the self as subject, the other as subject and the wider world as subject. Empathic recognition and response is continual.

As Peter Drucker, the famed 20 century management consultant, said, ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast.’ In a re-imagined 21st century empathic workplace, both culture and strategy have a seat at the breakfast table and they are talking with one another.**

*Notes: Culture Continuum

(1) Organizational culture as described is viewed through an organizational communication lens.

(2) There is the equivalent of a ‘psychic Berlin Wall’ between Levels 3 and 4. Movement ‘upward’ from 4 to 3 (not vice-versa) is essentially ‘walled-off’ because of the intentional non-empathic nature of bullying cultures.

(3) The bulk of American workplaces fall into Level 3: Muddled.

(4) The continuum is not static. Organizational culture can move ‘up or down’ in empathy recognition and response levels depending upon WIGO.

(5) The primary differentiator between Levels 1 and 2 is ‘felt’ more than seen or heard. The feeling of joy permeates a Level 1 culture because of the dialogic nature of inspired cultures.

**The stronger alignment is between the parts of an organization (namely, strategy, people/culture, structure/process and technology) the higher the effectiveness of the organization. However, culture is typically a ‘red-headed step-child with freckles’ when it comes to alignment. It’s often acknowledged reluctantly by management because culture is hard to ‘get your hands around’ and therefore, it’s more difficult to manage than the other parts. Yet, culture management is an imperative to thriving in the 21st century.

© Brief Descriptions of Organizational Culture Via Empathy Recognition and Response (Levels 1 to 5): An Organizational Communication Approach, Treat Consulting, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Organizational communication maven by day. Food, wine and beer buff by night. World traveler. Entrepreneurial spirit. Contact Eroca Gabriel, a former Fortune 100 'people and culture' consultant at treatconsulting@yahoo.com.

www.linkedin.com/in/erocagabriel/

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