The Greater Good: Session 3
Writer, journalist, disability advocate; blogger for Psychology Today
Writer, journalist; contributor to n+1, The Brooklyn Rail, and Modern Painters
G. Anthony Gorry
Professor of Computer Science at Rice University and Professor of Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine
Professor of Biology at the University of Chicago; author of Medical Neurobiology
By the time I was in high school, most of my social connections were based on a shared interest: a curiosity about language and culture. The majority of my friends had grown up in a different culture—they were either expatriates or exchange students. We connected because we had a common experience. The linguistic patterns and body language that were natural to us were not at all natural to our peers.
For me, these challenges were due to neurological differences. For them, they were due to culture. The impact was the same. Being understood meant playing detective, figuring out the meaning in others’ verbal and nonverbal language, and adjusting our own body language cues to align with that of our peers.
What we learned through trial and error was that while some body language can be shared, it is far from universal. Anything from length of eye contact to personal proximity could prove problematic if unexamined. What felt automatic to us could be perceived as “closed off,” “shy,” “creepy,” or even “dangerous” to others. In other words, cultural differences impacted empathy.
These early lessons about the importance of culture have carried to my current life, a portion of which takes place in a corporate environment. In our first exchange, Ms. Falvey noted the focus of empathy in many corporate environments. As she also noted, the term can be applied very differently in other contexts. In my experience, corporate culture can also be a big factor in the definition of empathy used and how it is applied.
In some organizations, it does indeed mean “the ability to accurately gauge how one appears to others.” In others, it’s a tool to get the proper performance from employees. In still others, empathy is something bigger, and broader. It’s something that binds employees to one another, drives them in common direction, and connects a corporation to its customers and the community at large.
In a recent TED Talk, “The currency of the new economy is trust,” Rachel Botsman discussed the importance of reputation and trust in the new economy. What does this have to do with empathy? I’d argue a great deal. Trust often depends on connection, and connection is based on empathy—feeling that people “get” who you are, care about you, and are interested in your well being.
If you look beneath the surface of many recent high-profile corporate failures, what are the most common questions asked? They are questions about empathy. Were those making the decisions aware of the damage they would inflict on others? Did they really feel contrite about that damage? Are they working to ameliorate that harm?
What people believe about the intentions of corporate management, and by extension, the company as a whole, can vastly impact consumer perception of the company and its brand. Establishing a corporate pattern of empathy has become even more crucial with the rise of technology, which can enable one dissatisfied customer to reach thousands, even millions, thereby impacting the corporation’s reputation.
Take, for example, the controversy that went viral earlier this month when a family was denied boarding by American Airlines while traveling with their teenage son, who was born with Down syndrome. Their confrontation with airline employees, which left the young man’s mother sobbing, was recorded via cell phone and soon picked up by mainstream media.
Looking at all this, I wonder: Is it possible for an organization to show empathy? To what extent does the behavior of a single employee impact a company’s reputation as a whole? How will technology change corporate culture? In the marketplace of the future, will empathy be a strategic advantage?
PANELISTG. Anthony Gorry
"We care for you," companies declare, and to support these claims, many now offer "customer care" in place of what was formerly called “customer service.” New responsiveness, however, will not come from a simple relabeling; a sleight of hand that implies more devoted effort but really aims to capture a larger share of the wallet. Ultimately, behind processes and protocols, a company's care for its customers emerges from the relationships between customers and employees—from the front line to the executive suite. Directed by managers attuned to customer needs, employees can empathetically respond to requests for assistance and calls for redress when customers feel products or services fall short of promises.
Technology increasingly mediates relations between companies and customers, bringing benefits to both. But too often, it has diminished care for customers. In the worst case, voice response or web-based robots intervene between customers and employees. These artificial entities plod along, unmoved by the worries or needs of humans seeking help. Our concerns and needs for help must be squeezed into simple menu options. There is no way to enter into the crucial mode of narrative—to tell a story, to say anything that falls outside the highly constrained vocabulary of today's automated customer service. Complaints falling on robotic ears stir neither imagination nor empathy. All that remains is a tedious exchange of some information that denies the possibility of true conversation.
Given my profound ignorance of corporate culture, I will instead discuss the role of empathy in the biomedical world where I have been involved in research and education for the past thirty years. In the interests of full disclosure, I was not trained for nor am I competent to practice medicine.
There is an interesting and nuanced role for empathy in clinical medicine. An example of the benefits of empathic doctors was discussed in a recent New York Times article. Italian diabetics served by highly empathic physicians had a third fewer complications than did those whose physicians were judged to be less empathic. The most straightforward explanation for this finding is that empathy improves the doctor-patient relationship and therefore patient compliance. Patient compliance means that the patient faithfully adheres to the therapeutic and lifestyle advice of the physician and it greatly increases as physicians display more empathy. Score one for empathy.
Sociologist Eva Illouz (whose work I referred in my first post as well) argues that emotions are "unreflective aspects of action" and that we find them compelling because they are saturated with their economic and cultural context.
When we think about occasions of empathy, we posit a context in which two actors—the one who is currently in need and the one who empathizes with them—cross paths. It's a kind of hierarchical relation: one person is worse off than the other.