Home » empathic responsiveness » Empathy: Capitalist Tool (Part 2): “CEO” now means “Chief Empathy Officer”

Empathy: Capitalist Tool (Part 2): “CEO” now means “Chief Empathy Officer”

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“CEO” no longer means “Chief Executive Officer,” but “Chief Empathy Officer.” This time one can hear the groans—from the executive suite, not the cubicles. 

Empathy is one of those things that are hard to delegate. This role shows up like another job responsibility with which the CEO of the organization is tasked—along with everything else that she already has to do. As if she did not already have enough alligators snapping at various parts of her anatomy, one has to be nice about it, too? But of course empathy is not niceness, though it is not about being un-nice. It is about knowing what others are experiencing, because one has a vicarious experience and then processing that further to expand boundaries and exercise leadership. 

This puts me in mind of a mini-case-history reported by Annie McKee in the Harvard Business Review (HBR).[i] In this case, an up and coming executive, Miguel (not his real name), goes from turning around many struggling divisions in a multi-divisional corporation to a kind of identity crisis about who he authentically is in relation to the possibility of empathy. Miguel is a wizard at finding profit and weeding out waste. Miguel goes from division to division (each big enough to be a separate company) working his financial wizardry. It seems to work. 

If the case sounds like a thinly disguised version of the career of Jack Welch, who was CEO of the multi-divisional General Electric (GE) from 1981 to 2001, then so be it. Welch retired from GE with a package estimated at $417 million.[ii] According to some reports, Welch was nicknamed “Neutron Jack,” because, like the neutron bomb, he eliminated the people while leaving the buildings and the profits standing. 

Welch innovated a management approach called “rank and yank,” now widely imitated. Each year, the bottom 10% of his managers, regardless of absolute performance, would be let go. Those in the top 20% were amply rewarded with bonuses and stock options, which were extended liberally from top executives to nearly one third of all GE employees. 

Welch reportedly fought against, but did not solve, the chronic problem of Wall Street pressure to sacrifice the sustainability of long term growth for short term profit. Welch railed against the very system that he outfoxed brilliantly over a twenty year career as CEO, but, note well, only after he got his payout. 

Regarding shareholder value, Welch said in a Financial Times interview on the global financial crisis of 2008–2009: “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy […] your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”[iii]

Now you are going to expect me to say this method was the epitome of lack of empathy, and from the perspective of the employees whose jobs were eliminated, it definitely lands that way. Yet that is precisely what Welch was hired to do. Thus, the context.

Next act, quick scene change back to Miguel. In McKee’s HBR mini-case-history, his corporate superiors inform Miguel that those employees who survived his restructurings now hate their jobs, teams are dysfunctional, and the “by the numbers” culture has become toxic. (I believe this did not happen at GE.) Miguel is told “fix it” or he will never become CEO (which is apparently part of his agreement and expectation). 

Miguel hires Professor McKee as his empathy consultant, and he is making slow, all-too-slow, progress working with her in expanding his empathy when another set-back occurs. Miguel’s wife throws down the gauntlet, pointing out that he is never available for her and the kids even when he is supposedly physically present. This hits home, literally. This inspires Miguel to expand his practice of empathy to a new level. He commits to learning how to listen, relate to others as a contribution, walk in their shoes, and respond empathically. 

Thanks to Miguel’s renewed commitment—and McKee’s consulting and coaching—the empathy training works. Miguel expands his empathy in time. All live happily (and empathically) ever after, both at home and on the job, in this “just so” story. 

However, in the real world, the Miguel and Welch narratives dramatically diverge—as do fiction and nonfiction. As a celebrity CEO, the dynamics of Jack Welch’s personal vicissitudes were played out in the public press, so they are readily available to the interested gossip—I mean reader—and the details of Welch’s three divorces will not be rehearsed further here. This speaks volumes to most ordinary humans. Thus, the lives of the rich and famous.

The empathy lesson? There is an cost and impact to every initiative and project. The cost and impact extend to empathy. Empathy is expanded or contracted. There is a cost and impact to “rank and yank,” even for those doing the ranking (though, of course, especially for those who are “yanked”). 

No one needs to feel sorry for anyone, reportedly the “yanked” walked away with nice packages, but this is not for the faint of heart. On a happier note, Welch goes on to found a management school, the Jack Welch Institute, in an initiative designed to rationalize and replicate the business methods and financial “magic” that he developed at GE. Some thirty-five CEOs heading corporations today have been trained in his method (mostly at GE, not his theme-branded school). The principles Welch developed are also delivered at business schools such as MIT’s Sloan School of Management. With the case of Welch in the background, one realizes that the mini-case-history of Miguel really does indeed conceal an alternative point of view. However, “alternative” does not mean “inaccurate,” but a re-description of events that points to a hidden empathic breakdown. 

Miguel was doing exactly what his corporate superiors asked him to do. If the financial results were not sustainable after his departure, this was so much “regression to the mean.” Even the average profitability of the companies identified by the celebrated In Search of Excellence by Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman dropped sharply within a few years in the absence of sustained leadership. “Regression to the mean” means literally that when one performs above average now, get ready for one to perform below average later; when one performs below average now, get ready to perform above average later. The boss will predictably approve of the above-average performance and disapprove of the below-average one; but the subsequent performance is governed by “regression to the mean,” not the boss’ approval or disapproval. 

For all the ambiguous comments made about Jack Welch such as “Neutron Jack,” he managed to create an entrepreneurial spirit in a giant, multi-divisional bureaucracy. Now that was both the good news and the bad news. For those employees looking to put in their time, performing routine tasks—and conforming—prior to collecting a pension, that was bad news. It demanded a way of relating to possibility that required innovation and transformation that was ultimately career ending for those individuals. 

To his enduring credit, Welch inspired an approach to creating possibilities by his own example that he called “boundaryless.” In short, he broke down organizational silos by giving permission to cross boundaries between traditional functions in search of possibilities, i.e., innovations. The boundary crossing sounds like the skillful use of empathy in building and managing cross functional teams.

Welch formed cross-functional teams to brain storm and implement possibilities that had not previously been envisioned. He championed ideas and possibilities for improvement regardless of whether the ideas came from inside or outside the company. “This is the way things have always been done” became the wrong answer, or at least no longer the default reply. Note that “boundless” behavior should not be confused with boundary violations. Empathy is about crossing boundaries to give the other person the possibility of breakthrough contribution, doing so with respect and recognition, and in a way that preserves the integrity of the boundary.

Welch was in charge at GE for twenty years; he had sufficient time to train divisional leaders in sustaining his practices; and retain them in charge of the divisions he had restructured. During his tenure at GE, the company’s value reportedly rose some 4,000%.[iv] If that is not sustained value, I would not know it. 

Meanwhile, Miguel’s bosses asked him to put relatively short term financial results ahead of team building, retaining the best people, entrepreneurial informality, and, like a good leader, he made it work—for a while. He made it work until the bosses decided they did not want him to do that anymore. Surprise! Then they told him, “Fix it or you’re gone!” Miguel’s listening—a key component of empathy—was operating at an advanced level. He listened well; and he gave his superiors back precisely what he got from them—and what they asked of him. It turns out his superiors didn’t like it as much as they thought they would. 

It does put one in mind of the example of George M. Pullman, who is no longer the model for employer-employee relations. Pullman ordered the workers fired when they presented him with a petition in protest of a 25% reduction in wages.[v] Pullman as Miguel’s boss? Miguel’s superiors changed their minds, having gotten the benefits of the “rank and yank” approach. Boards are allowed to change their collective mind (and minds), and were now looking for a CEO more like Walt Disney, Marshall Fields, perhaps Warren Buffet or Sam Walton, after the latter had made their first billion dollars, and could afford to throttle back a notch, cultivating a kinder, gentler image.

My redescription of events? While it is accurate that Miguel was innovating with his own version of Neutron Jack, Miguel was also on the receiving end of the breakdown in empathy. He could not give what he did not get, and, by the time his corporate superiors figured out what they wanted, Miguel had perfected his version of the Roman invasion of Britain. The surviving Brits were reported to have said: “The Romans ‘make peace’ by creating a desert.” The Brits were not referring to an “empathy desert,” but the idea is similar. McKee’s case history is a nice narrative and a useful cautionary tale. However, the tale lacks credibility and confronts us with the next challenge, empathy: capitalist tool. 

Empathy: Capitalist tool

“The Lone Ranger” is a vanishing breed in today’s corporation. Modern work, from the upper echelons of the corporate hierarchy to the bottom levels of the lowest cubicle, requires empathy. 

Whether sales person, software developer, accountant, or business leader, one has got to be “a team player,” “willing to go above and beyond the call of duty,” spend long hours on business travel, and be cheerful about it. One has got to get in touch with one’s empathy; and use one’s empathy to satisfy customers, teammates, stake-holders, and superiors. 

In short, empathy is now a capitalist tool. Managers need to apply ample empathic skills. Managers are required to keep workers contented so that the workers can be productive. Managers are now coaches, facilitating employees feeling valued, so employees are emotionally invested in contributing to the team, team spirit, and the long hours and frequently uninspiring routine work required as a project hits “crunch time.” 

Both managers and line employees must be able to turn empathy “on” for customers; “on” for team work; “on” for co-workers; but “off” for the competition; “off” for efficiency and discipline; and “off” for compliance and rule following. This ability to turn empathy “on” and “off” implies an approach that this book has questioned in arguing that empathy is a dial or tuner rather than an “on-off” switch. However, even if, for the sake of argument, we imagine empathy as an “on-off” switch, this calls for a level of skill in regulating empathy in which most people lack practical skill.

Consider. Customers pay their good, hard earned money for products and services, and it is a low bar to say that customers are entitled to be listened to, treated with dignity, and responded to empathically by a corporation and its representatives. The empathic engagement with and treatment of customers is demonstrably a rewarding investment. 

How about employees? As a person moves into the work force, he is empathic because those in authority advocate for it as a form of team building. It is important that one be empathic in addressing the issues and concerns of co-workers, customers, and stake-holders. 

Employees who feel that they are “gotten as a possibility” by their company are emotionally invested in the success of the company. They are inspired to go the extra mile to deliver value on their agreements, make extra effort for the team, and see their personal contribution in terms of the big picture. They are not just stone cutters banging away at a rock with a hammer; they are building a cathedral. 

Neither the employee nor the manager “above” him have been trained in empathy, and it is not a part of their job description, at least in any explicit way. Though there are dozens of training firms in everything from compliance to conflict resolution, the number of individuals and firms in North American and the European Union delivering empathy training can be counted on the fingers of one hand. While that may be changing, expecting CEO’s to give empathy when they are not in touch with their own empathy, makes no sense. Nor is it fair either to the leader or would-be recipient. Welcome to the age of Machiavellian empathy!

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) was famous for saying that it would be best if the leader—the Prince, in his day—was loved, but it is essential that he be feared.

Machiavelli never actually said that the ruler, the Prince, must be perceived to be empathic, even as he ruthlessly wields power behind the scenes. But that is what he implied. In the context of politics, Machiavellian empathy refers to politicians who present themselves as being empathic while manipulating, spinning alternative facts, double dealing, and so on, behind the scenes. Machiavellian empathy shows up in business, too. If managers are not in touch with their empathic abilities, they are counseled to “fake it till you make it.” Many never “make it” and continue “faking it.”

Whether or not one authentically understands the experience of the other person is less relevant to the Machiavellian Empath than scoring points on a check list of concerned behavior. 

Is this then the ultimate cynical moment? Is this the ultimate easy way out? Is this the reduction to absurdity of empathy? If empathy is about setting boundaries, where is the boundary? While not a complete response, one distinct limit to Machiavellian empathy is Lincoln’s famous saying, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.” Ask Travis Kapernick, Bernie Madoff, or Harvey Weinberg.[vi]

Strictly speaking, Machiavellian empathy takes nothing away from empathy’s intrinsic benefits and uses. Even if one wants to present the appearance of being empathic for propaganda (i.e., marketing) purposes, while continuing to operate with dubious business practices behind the scenes, reality has a way of catching up with appearances. Amazon said it was a wonderful place to work. Then the New York Times got some employees to comment on the record about “mean” behavior.[vii] Uber was disrupting the disrupters and creating the Gig Economy, which supposedly set us free. Then a driver, who was not in touch with that supposed freedom, unwittingly interviewed the CEO, Travis Kapernick, on camera.[viii]

So far as we can tell at this writing, neither of these breakdowns has resulted in breakthroughs. There is no guarantee that the Machiavellian Empath will slip up and document his or her own inauthenticity for us; it rarely happens rapidly enough; but it happens. 

Empathy deserts grow: Woe to those that harbor empathy deserts!

Capitalism organizes empathy along with workers and production processes. Under capitalism, empathy is a means, not an end dedicated to the satisfaction of human needs, aspirations, and demands. (When the word “demand” is used, think “supply and demand” for products and services in a market.) Some workplaces are empathy deserts in spite of the appearance of mangers with published “open door” policies.[ix] Key term: empathy desert. After a day at the office, people often feel as if their personality had been erased. One’s humanity withers in the desert. So if you find yourself feeling dehumanized by your job, maybe you work in one of those, regardless of the prevailing rhetoric. 

Instead of the industrial supervisor shouting orders to his workers, who curse under their breath and conform to the orders, today’s managers employ therapeutic strategies to create a convivial environment of trust, relatedness, sociality, loyalty, and care. Happy people sell. Happy people write more software code with fewer bugs. Happy people deliver projects on time, on budget. Value creation in the late capitalist economy is a function of the exchange of emotion and empathy.[x]

The way “empathy” is used in the business media today, it means that corporations innovate in providing benefits to their employees. Many of these benefits enable employees to get away from the job and restore aspects of their humanity that are hard to maintain in the “corporate jungle” (or desert). It means that firms return to their employees some of the revenues that the employees earn for the firm by providing services. Such a proliferation of meanings may be a phase that empathy has to go through before we can really grasp how it essentially makes a difference. 

For example, Procter & Gamble offers a personal leave of absence, which the employee can use to engage in a “life project.” Up to three months off without pay—but with continued benefits—allows the employee to pursue a personal “life project,” and, P&G to retain valuable talent, since the employee returns to work after the sabbatical.[xi] Though Human Resources (HR) has to approve the project, the benefit can be used to: complete writing a PhD or masters thesis that requires dedicated time on task for writing and research; design and implement a database tracking system for a social justice issue for Amnesty International or Doctors Without Borders; trek to Nepal and attempt to climb an 8K meter high mountain; sail around the world. 

At Google (Alphabet) parental leave is a benefit: Moms get up to 18 weeks of paid leave; Dads get six. The company also pays “baby bonding bucks” to help with initial expenses such as formula and diapers. 

Prudential Financial is addressing the employee challenge of being a care-giver for a parent or relative by providing adult care in an employee or loved one’s home. The company provides referrals to geriatric care services as well as elder law and adult care-giving seminars. 

IBM contracts with an educational firm to provide a “get into college coach” for its employees with children applying to college. They will not write the admissions essay for the children, but provide detailed guidance as to what different colleges are looking for, test scores, grade point average, and cultural preferences. All these are valuable in reducing parental (i.e., employee) stress. Note this is one corporate benefit that does not require the employee to leave work. Sensibly enough, the worker continues to work, presumably to pay college tuition, while “out sourcing” some of the elaborate, complex project planning needed by the student actually to get into college. Win-win all around.

While my work has repeatedly emphasized that there is enough empathy to go around, empathy is not uniformly distributed. How could it be? Executives who are talented at dealing empathically with customer issues may be less skilled at dealing empathically with employees; and those skilled at dealing empathically with employee issues may be less skilled at dealing empathically with union negotiations, the press, or business partners and competitors (who may be one and the same). 

Arguably, empathy flows from those with more power towards those on the front line engaging with customers. However, if the customer is big enough, for example, contemplating buying a fleet of jets or a global enterprise software system, the ultimate sales person turns out precisely to be the CEO or her close colleagues. The executive suite is now on the front line. But who trained those leaders—or any one—in empathy? If we gave the executive (or front line help desk person) the kind of empathy exam described above by Leslie Jameson, in which an actor learns a script, portrays a client with a problem, in effect being a “secret shopper,” what would be the grade (see p. 121 above)? While we may never know for sure, I predict that the grade will be lower than if the executive fills out a self-assessment in which one can pick out the “right answer” based on common sense and an appreciation of kindness. Thus, the case for expanding empathy through training.


[i] McKee, Annie. (2016). If you can’t empathize with your employees, you’d better learn to, Harvard Business Review, November 16, 2016.

[ii] Anonymous Contributors. (nd). Jack Welch. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_ Welch [checked on June 30, 2017].

[iii] Ibid, Jack Welch, Wikipedia

[iv] Ibid, Jack Welch, Wikipedia

[v] Melvin Urovsky. (1998). Pullman strike, Britannica Online: https://www.britannica.com/event/ Pullman-Strike.

[vi] Meanwhile, more breaking news, as this book goes to press, some 49 men stand accused of sexual misconduct in various workplaces extending from Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood production company (from which he was fired) through venture capital to restaurant businesses: 

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/11/10/us/men-accused-sexualmisconductweinstein.html?_r=0. The problem is that, while it is good that this abuse is finally coming out, it has been hidden in plain for years and years. See Harry Markopolis’ (2010) statement in a different context above, “no one would listen.” Where is Lord Acton when we need him? Lord Acton said: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

[vii] Kantor and Streitfeld 2015..

[viii] Seyluk 2017.

[ix] Roman Krznaric (2104) quoted in Belinda Parmar (2014) The Empathy Era: Woman, Business and the New Pathway to Profit, London: Lady Geek: 91. Parmar does not cite a page in Krznaric. 

[x] Tristam Vivian Adams. (2016). The Psychopath Factory: How Capitalism Organises Empathy. London: Repeater Books: 56–77. 

[xi] Matt Krumie. (2016). Ten companies putting empathy into action, Cornerstone On Demand: https://www.cornerstoneondemand.com/rework/10-companies-putting-empathy-action [checked on July 03, 2017].

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD and the Chicago Empathy Project


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