Observations on Employee Ownership
The Empathy Debit Crisis
August 1, 2011Before I started the NCEO, I was a political scientist specializing in Congress and then a congressional staff member. In those days (the 1970s), the prevailing wisdom was that, in general, to win elections you had to move to the center. The theory was that if you moved to one flank or another, your opponent would, by moving to middle, preempt many of your potential voters while still keeping his or hers. That all changed in the late 1990s, driven largely by Karl Rove's approach with George Bush to focus on intensity instead of breadth. Under this theory, only about half the people vote even for President and fewer for other offices, so turning out your base in a high percentage, even if that base is a minority of all voters, can be a reliable winning strategy. That was reinforced by the rise of cable news and talk radio, which ramped up the intensity factor.
Whatever you think of the virtues of this approach, a consequence has been that the center has shrunk as a political possibility even while most people define themselves as close to the center politically and are disgusted by the failure of the politicians they elect (increasingly for their own intense views) to be able to compromise. So if the people we elect do compromise, we are annoyed that they compromise on the things we feel intensely about and if they do not compromise, we are annoyed that they can't be more practical. It's a tough job being a politician these days.
Companies have their politics as well, and face much the same problem. There are people who care very intensely about various things at work. They tend to work with other people who share their same views. Classically, that has been workers versus managers, but it can be (as in the airlines), unions versus unions, sales versus production, our location versus your location, etc. There may also be divisions based on age, race, language, education and more. Compromise becomes difficult, even as people complain that we need to work together more. Like us voters, they see the need for compromise, but cannot see how any reasonably sane person would not see just how important and obvious issue x, y, or z is.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this. When we isolate ourselves in our own groups, it becomes very difficult to empathize with the intensely felt concerns of others. Indeed, it becomes easy to demonize them. But if there are regular opportunities to interact, socially and professionally, formally and informally, empathy becomes a lot easier and intensity dials down. The company picnic is a start, but even better are cross-functional teams, job shadowing, role playing, a newsletter that contains personal stories about people beyond their jobs, and other opportunities to interact in ways not defined by your usual role. Empathy is powerful human emotion. Our ability to empathize is the basis for being able to work in groups, which, in turn, was how we as a species made it in a threatening world of bigger, faster predators in the first place. There is a huge empathy debit crisis in politics today (far more important, I think, than the debt crisis), but there does not have to be one in your company.