Empathy is Strength
A recent article in the business press, a light after-lunch essay, poked justifiable fun at Facebook’s new discovery that its customers (no longer “users”) are people with feelings, and the establishment of a Facebook “empathy team” to, well, empathise. This will make it harder to treat your customers as lab rats, Facebook.
Like the author, I don’t want empathy from Facebook — indeed I would like it to mind its own business a bit more.
But the article went on to dismiss empathy as weakness, and propound the old “only the ruthless prosper” lie. Empathy is not weakness. Empathy is knowledge, and letting knowledge in, and letting ourselves feel.
There are hard things to be done, in business as in other fields. If we can’t find within ourselves the courage to do them, that’s weakness, not empathy. Let’s talk about dismissing people from jobs, because that’s what the article talked about. It’s a horrible thing to have to do. If we so harden and blind ourselves that we don’t see the hardship and hurt, we merely diminish ourselves. We merely cut off some of our humanity. That will probably lead us to cause even more hurt than we must. Perhaps we will outsource the sacking, or do it by SMS, or find silly and dishonest euphemisms. And the sword of Damocles still hangs over our own head, anyhow.
If we do it with empathy, we find the honesty to say: I hate doing this, but it has to be done. Empathy is not paralysis. Empathy is honesty.
Sacking is an easy example to come up with. Let’s think of putting a company into liquidation, which hurts not only employees, but customers, creditors and investors. The business world, the market, can’t work without failure. Business models and products must be tried, and some won’t succeed. Our system has a fairly clean method of limiting the damage and moving on.
We gain nothing by suppressing empathy as we do this necessary job: by pretending not to notice that this is the end of hopes, dreams, employment prospects, perhaps someone’s nest egg. Allowing ourselves to see these things might also allow us to be as fair as possible, and at least to be honest with the people we have to hurt. We can grow in courage and insight instead of starving ourselves of these.
Empathy is strength, not weakness.
That’s what I think. You?