Are You Ready For The Era Of Empathy?

The whole concept of the human-centered business is still fairly new. Weird, huh? Why aren’t humans a top priority? Aren’t they the ones who buy things? Aren’t they the ones who create things?

For more than a century, management was laser-focused on one goal: driving results no matter the cost to the employees, or to the world for that matter. Workers were exploited, resources were drained, and profits remained concentrated in the hands of the few. But, thank goodness, that paradigm is starting to change. In the last few years, managers have begun to recognize the importance of connecting with their employees — which are humans, by the way — on both a professional and personal level. We are entering what some call the Era of Empathy.

To understand where we are going, it’s helpful to take a look at where we’ve been. I’m borrowing from Columbia Business School Professor Rita Gunther McGrath, who laid out the evolution of management in a 2014 article for the Harvard Business Review.

Management – A VERY brief history

  • Pre-Industrial Revolution: Management was just for churches, the military and a few domestic endeavors and based mainly on slave-labor. Management was often the job of the owner, who focused on things rather than people.
  • Industrial Revolution, early 1900s: One of the first management specialists, Peter Drucker, introduced the now famous concept of the knowledge worker. He said that workers’ value wasn’t created just by their production of goods or execution of tasks but also by their use of information, which challenged all that organizations know about the proper relationships between managers and subordinates. Albert Einstein eloquently summarized this transition when he said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”
  • Mid-20th century: This period ushered in a proliferation of management theories and gave rise to the expert age, where there were specialists with advanced education to tackle complex issues or innovations. This led to the rise of management consulting firms and outsourcing. It was studded with all sorts of management trends, including the precursor to the waterfall project management model and continuous improvement methods like Six Sigma.
  • 20th century and beyond – The Era of Empathy in management has been brewing with the rise of emotional intelligence and emphasis on employee engagement. It’s evident through the unprecedented focus on user, customer or employee experience. Only through understanding what your audience experiences, feels and acts can you create sustained value. Management’s role is one of coaching, community building and co-creating versus the command and control of times past.

The Era of Empathy is important because it is the foundation of an innovative workplace. It sounds like a heavy load for managers, especially the old-school types who are still clinging to the notion that work is a simple contract between employer and employee. So, what does management look like when work is done through networks instead of lines of command? The word “work” itself is tinged with emotions, and individual managers are responsible for creating and nurturing communities for those who work for and with them.

If what is demanded of a manager today is empathy, then what new roles and organizational structures make sense? How should performance management be approached? What does it take for a leader to function as a pillar, and how should the next generation of manager be taught?

An empathetic manager nourishes an environment of innovation and change. The new manager creates an environment that nourishes innovation, where his/her job is to assist their employees to execute their ideas even in the face of constant change and uncertainty.

Here are 3 things a modern manager must master to thrive in today’s complex Era of Empathy:

Emotional intelligence within themselves, their team, their organization, their partners and even their customers. It’s a matrix. It’s complex. And it is moving at light-speed. One up that with a side of user experience, emphasizing the end-user actions and reactions at every stage of development and delivery.

Community creation and management within the matrix. Facilitating connections among his/her direct reports, adjacent departments, up and down the hierarchy and external stakeholders, all of which are globally dispersed and loaded with varied motivations and goals.

Empowerment among the matrix and especially employees.  Empowerment comes in a variety of flavors, from tweaking an employee’s idea to make it sing or rephrasing assignments as a problem or desired result instead of telling how to do it. It’s allowing your employees to learn through failure and succeed through experimentation. It’s silencing all the naysayers and amplifying the wild and zany. It’s having the courage to allow employees to work with customers or other stakeholders to create solutions.

The era of empathy in management has arrived. Are you ready?

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K. Melissa Kennedy

Chief Innovation Officer, Founder, Intrapreneur. Entrepreneur. Enthusiastic leader and speaker. Teller of truths at 48 Innovate
I spent many years working for and building successful companies. I parlayed that experience into a unique process for harnessing hidden assets inside organizations and turning them into big-idea-generating, $1-billion-revenue-producing resources. (Spoiler alert: it’s the people.) I'm an internationally acclaimed expert, happy to share the not-so-secrets that have led to impressive outcomes for Fortune 100 corporations, major educational institutions, start-up companies and entrepreneurs. Working with companies like Cisco, Lancope, Arby's, Capitol Broadcasting Company New Media - WRAL, PRSONAS, Cranfill Sumner & Hartzog, REVO Communications, Erno Group, Focus Carolina, Madan Global, UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, INZONE Brands, Albright Digital, Spring Metrics and NC State Kenan Fellows.

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