Are You Your Shoes?

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How can we resolve the struggle for authenticity?

By David Chapman davidchapman@starfishld.com

Whenever this whole COVID period passes, will there still be this massively endemic impact on how we work and how we present ourselves? Right now, we’re not in suits, we’re not wearing the armour. When everything is stripped away as it is, now, we have to be more of who we are, and it’s harder to present the work mask. So how will we relate to each other as a result of this experience, when we traipse back into the office? How will we assess authenticity? A concept so often bandied about as this holy grail, yet so many people struggling to define it.

The perils of disassociation

In our most recent podcast episode of Espresso Briefing https://soundcloud.com/espressobriefingpodcast/episode-8-loves-executioner-empathy-work-self-grace  Julia Fern, a senior executive at Qubit, narrated the fascinating story of Carlos, a high ranking executive who’s very anxious and controlling in work situations; also very neat, where everything has to be just so. And eventually he learns to almost disassociate with who he is at his core. His therapist, Irvin D, Yalom recounts this story in his book, Love’s Executioner, telling us about how Carlos’ dissociation with any sense of vulnerability reached a pinnacle when he contracted cancer, and sought refuge in hyper-macho attitudes, that became dangerously aggressive. His therapy challenged him around these cut off feelings and led him to reject his armour – his “battle” shoes – and embrace his truer self.

Julia related to this, saying that “sometimes we discover that what we thought we need to be is actually a lot less effective than being exactly as we are”

My response was “what’s amazing to me is that how little permission people actually need to be themselves, but that we need that permission!”

Empathy in an office climate

So how can we give ourselves and others true permission to embrace their truest self – their vulnerabilities, gifts, and quirks? For me, it is about cultivating two virtues – being both empathetic…and unattached. I’ll leave the virtue of being unattached to the next blog – let’s focus here on empathy>

As we transition to a new normal, there is fear and excitement. In the short term, from the unknown commercial fall-out of the pandemic and, in the medium term, from the continued impact and opportunities of AI and automation. Hack Future Lab’s research shows that 83% of executives see empathy playing a far greater role in sustaining a thriving workforce in a post-COVID future of work; additionally, two out of three employees would prefer to work for an organization that shows empathy towards all its stakeholders.

As HR and business leaders prepare for their workforce for the next phase of recovery, they must ask the question: how do we cultivate a healthy, productive, and empathetic workforce willing to own the transformation journey — and resilient enough to handle the challenges brought by a global pandemic?

From Economics to Empathy

Economist Milton Friedman stated that the purpose of an organization was solely to make profit for its shareholders. This no longer holds relevance in a world of disease, debt, and disruption. With a new, more responsible mandate emerging, the challenge for HR and business leaders is to rethink what makes organizations successful. According to Hack Future Lab, an overwhelming 84% agreed that empathy is critical for business success and 60% agree that empathy really matters.

The bad news is that more than half the group report that empathy was not a strength and was not even on the C-suite’s agenda. The bottom line is that empathy is seen as incredibly important but mismanaged and undervalued in most organizations.

Scaling empathy

The 20th century was about scaling efficiency and doing things right rather than doing the right things. The C-suite regards scaling empathy as a top talent investment capable of driving business advantage and yet according to Hack Future Lab, just 34% of HR and business leaders are investing in this as part of their future of work strategy. Why? In some part because employees are more likely to feel a strong sense of what the late psychiatrist Oliver Sacks called the 3B’s: belief, belonging and becoming.

That is, at the deepest human level humans need something to believe in, a strong sense of belonging and to be in a perpetual state of ‘beta’, which means lifelong curiosity and learning. Companies such as games developer King and microblogging platform Twitter report that when empathy is rated as a strength, employees are twice as likely to say their organization is transparent about which jobs will change, and rank uncertainty last in reasons for feeling burnt out. Employees who work in empathetic cultures are also three times as likely to be satisfied with the company, with no plans to leave.

So ask your organisation three questions:

  1. How should empathy be defined and demonstrated, especially by senior executives?
  2. What permissions should be integral to workplace dynamics – whether we are interacting in the flesh, or virtually?
  3. What pre-Covid rituals, expectations, and assumptions inhibit authenticity, and should be waved goodbye?

If we aspire to be more than our shoes (and put away our armour forever) this might be a good start…

David Chapman davidchapman@starfishld.com enables HR Directors to conquer their influence problems and secure the ear of their CEOs. He is the co-host of Espresso Briefing, a podcast that briefs time-poor executives on the latest insights in leadership, culture, and performance. His CSR contribution is to train advocates to give a voice to the dispossessed in society.

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