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The Empathic Workplace: Re-imagining America in the 21st century Part 2

Empathy is the new personal power
Empathy is the new personal power

Excerpt: The Empathic Workplace: Re-imagining America in the 21st 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 2.

Ashlee, Bully Manager

‘I can’t see everything,’ Ashlee, a middle manager who works for a Fortune 100 restaurant chain*, stammers as she sidles up in front of me. A look of consternation splays across her face and she quickly laces her fingers together as though she’s praying for relief. Her body displays a feeling of being overwhelmed.

I look at Ashlee and wonder to myself how an intelligent, educated, thirty-plus year old woman from the Millennial Generation (b. 1982 – 2002) can act as though she’s living in 1954. Ashlee’s mindset mirrors a time gone by. In particular, her non-empathic, reactive (corrective) stance to managing people at work is passé. It creates disengagement colored with condescension in employees.

Transporting Ashlee’s mindset sixty years to reflect contemporary management thought – an empathic, proactive (anticipatory) stance – will be an uphill climb. Furthermore, her ability to empathize – identify what others are thinking or feeling and respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion – is limited by an ongoing communication pattern of criticism in her relationships with employees.

The following story sheds light on Ashlee’s empathic development and describes her initial predilection.

‘I can’t see everything’

Miya, a food server, lost her job today. It was because she made a threat and slapped another employee. Naturally, and smartly, her employer said goodbye. But, as a ‘people and culture’ organizational consultant, I can’t help thinking about what her manager didn’t do before Miya acted out in the workplace.

Tina, the server Miya slapped, had the foresight to let the restaurant manager, Ashlee, know that Miya had a problem. Tina talked with Ashlee before the shift started. Here’s what she said:

‘Ashlee, Miya never knows which tables are hers. Every time I work with her I have to tell her where her section is and point out her tables to her. She grabs any table she sees; mine, included.’

Ashlee’s reply: ‘If something happens today, let me know.’

Today, Miya didn’t know her tables again. Tina quietly (and very sweetly) let Miya know that Table 112 was hers. Miya was furious because the guests at Table 112 over heard Tina’s comments. She confronted Tina because she believed Tina embarrassed her in front of the guests.

In the ensuing conversation between Miya and Tina, Miya said ‘I’m going to punch you out.’ Then, she slapped Miya. It was over before it started. Miya lost her job.

Pro-activity is a philosophy of management that has been at the forefront of the American workplace since the 1930s. Pro-active managers identify potential problems and prevent them from happening or they identify problems and prevent them from becoming bigger problems.

When pro-active, managers focus on ‘what can go right.’ They recognize and respond to WIGO (what is going on) with a forward-thinking eye. They are empathic by nature of their pro-activity.

Reactive managers are focused on ‘what can go wrong.’ They recognize and respond to WIGO (what is going on) with a backward-thinking eye. They correct a problem, if possible, and often assign blame as punishment. Reactivity is by nature non-empathic.

It seemed incomprehensible to me that Ashlee didn’t understand pro-active management. Yet, when I asked her about pro-actively managing the problem with Miya she balked. ‘I can’t see everything. I can’t do everything. I can’t be everywhere. I have to wait until there’s a real problem before I take action,’ Ashlee said to me.

‘Before there’s a real problem,’ I repeated. ‘You knew Miya had a problem knowing which tables were hers. Tina told you about it at the start of the shift. Fifteen seconds worth of up-front coaching and Miya would still have a job. How can you rationalize your lack of action as good management practice?’

It’s not the first-time I’ve ‘pissed-off’ a client. It won’t be the last. Yet, it’s hard for me to conclude anything other than Ashlee ‘screwed up’ as a people-manager.

Perhaps Tina should not have spoken to Miya directly when Miya took her table. Tina never would have had to if Ashlee had talked to Miya about which tables were hers – and which weren’t – when she first learned about Miya's problem from Tina.

Ashlee ‘disciplined’ Tina by ‘writing her up’ for embarrassing Miya. I stepped in. ‘No CYA (cover your ass also known as scapegoating),’** I said. ‘Take responsibility and learn from your experience.’

People-Manager Mindset

Every people-manager has a unique mindset (e.g., pro-active or reactive is but one way to describe mindset) that is lived at work. Its themes are played out in relationships where empathy will show itself to varying degrees or not at all.

For example, ‘I can’t see everything.’ is one story in Ashlee’s living storybook that reflects her mindset; in her case, a reactionary mindset with consistent personal themes of self-absorption, low self-esteem and passive-aggressive bullying of staff.

Here’s another:

‘Be glad you have a job’

The restaurant where Ashlee works is consistently ineffective in its operations. Gaps in processes, i.e., baking bread just in time, relaying more soup to the alley before the pot is dry, a steady supply of water glasses in server stations, etc., are a way of life. Generally and continually, servers feel unsupported in their primary performance goal – 100% hospitality or 0% guest complaints – because they lack the products or tools they need at hand to do their jobs.

Ashlee’s repeated reaction when servers voice concern or dismay regarding operational ineffectiveness: ‘Be glad you have a job.’

Typically, her statement is followed by a psychic thud heard beneath the din; a thud that announces a spiral of moribund communication between Ashlee and the servers; a non-empathic pattern, to say the least.

Bully Culture Mindset

‘It’s the mindset, stupid.’ I slapped my forehead and wondered to myself how I could have missed the underlying cause of a bully culture until now.

Much of my organizational communication field work has consisted of counseling managers and employees on what to do about bullying at work and, more importantly, what to do about the bullies they encounter in the workplace.

Yet, responding to a bully at work, although necessary, is not enough to change an organization’s culture. A bully culture is birthed via mindset; a shared mindset that says, tacitly or evidently, bullying is ok.

Cultivating Mindset

When I was four my grandmother, May, picked me up and placed me lovingly, but definitely on the piano bench in front of the Wurlitzer piano in her living room. ‘This is Middle C,’ she said as she poked her boney index finger on the sliver of a key that plucked the appropriate string underneath the piano hood. Upon hearing its tone, I, too, poked ‘Middle C.’ A little ‘kerplunk’ followed and I discovered my ‘prima passione.’

When I celebrated my twelfth birthday, the ‘piano fairy’ threw her magic dust into my sparkling eyes and over my long, blonde trusses. Her spell worked. I fell headlong in love with a newly arrived black and white Yamaha, a gift from my parents.

From then on, I jumped out of bed every morning to ‘tickle the ivories’ with my dog, Teddy, a lovable mutt, at my side. Year after year, I cultivated mindset and developed knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). By the time, I entered the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as a freshman, I declared myself a music major.

Ultimately, I became a consultant changing my college major from music to organizational communication along the way. However, the lessons I learned about cultivating mindset as a ‘child musician’ reverberate to this day in my professional career.

Cultivating the Empathic Workplace

My story of becoming a musician is a handy metaphor for cultivating empathy in people in the workplace at individual, team and organizational levels. In this sense, to cultivate means ‘to foster the development of…’ over time. Cultivating musicianship begins with mindset as does cultivating the empathic workplace.

To cultivate the empathic workplace, focus on mindset FIRST.

A. Where is the mindset of a workplace?

a. Obviously, in its people – at individual, team and organizational levels. Shared mindset begins with team.

B. What specific KSAs do you foster in people (managers and employees) to cultivate an empathic mindset at work?

a. Recognition and response*** along with a behavioral pattern of appreciation of others.

C. In contrast, what KSAs are fostered in a bully manager or a bully culture?

a. A lack of recognition and response along with a behavioral pattern of criticism of others.

Ashlee, Bully Manager Revisited

‘That’s the way they want it managed’

Ashlee patters up to me. She stands wilted over as she makes awkward conversation. She has spent the greater part of an hour defending her stance on non-empathic, reactive people-management in a one-on-one meeting with me.

‘That’s the way they want it managed,’ she chirps as she hops toward the office door after our meeting.

Inwardly, I sigh. There’s little I can do for or with Ashlee. She’s lost in an underdeveloped, aggregate corporate mindset; one that calls for adherence at the price of principle.

Later in the day, Ashlee announces her decision to work elsewhere to the staff at the restaurant. Their response is perfunctory. Little does she know how full of care their response would have been had she developed relationships with them based upon empathic, pro-active management.

A Re-imagined America: Empathy At Work

Empathy is the new personal power. However, it doesn’t stand alone. Will is empathy’s psychic partner. The two are an inextricable ‘and/both’ in the human psyche.

The challenge to Millennials in the workplace, particularly for those who are moving into leadership, is to interweave ‘empathy and will’ intra- and interpersonally.

This question remains and has yet to be answered: Are the Millennials up to the 'and/both', individually and collectively, as 21st century leaders?


Given generational time-binding, a conscious and unconscious knowledge transfer between generations, Millennials have inherited a philosophical legacy of cultivating empathy (becoming ever more human) amid ongoing strife from the Baby Boomers. (See The Empathic Workplace: Part 1 on LinkedIn for clarification on time-binding and philosophical legacy.)

It is theirs to do with as they wish especially in the workplace. If they choose wisely, a re-imagination of work – and more importantly, a re-imagination of working together – is at hand.

*A Fortune 100 restaurant chain had hired me to work on performance gaps at an operationally ineffective restaurant when the incident between Tina and Miya took place. Ashlee was the manager on duty (MOD).

**’Scapegoating’ is one of two interconnected primary signs of a bully manager or a bully culture. The other is ‘gaslighting.’

*** Recognition and response can be learned as long as the empathic circuit in the brain is functioning. Recall from Part 1: ‘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’ (Baron-Cohen, Simon, Ph.D., The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (2009), p. 16)

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

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