In an AI world, empathy at work has never been more important

What Artificial Intelligence (AI) knows about the Amazon rainforests, empathy and diversity is up for debate, but its impact on workplace cultures is tangible. Colin D Ellis, author of Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work, discusses why.

Remember talk of the paperless office? It doesn’t feel like that long ago. Paper will not be required – or so we were told – everything will be on a device and eventually we could destroy the photocopiers (Office Space-style) and relax in the knowledge that through technology we’d saved swathes of trees from destruction and the Amazon rainforests would be protected forever…

Scepticism aside, it’s clear that Artificial Intelligent (AI) machines will have an effect on working cultures around the world and may actually contribute to the saving of the aforementioned rainforests, but only if people do their bit.

The importance of empathy at work can’t be downplayed if we’re to help the technology achieve what it’s capable of.

Replacing the dull, dirty, difficult and dangerous

About 18 months ago I attended a fascinating presentation by Dr Toby Walsh, Professor of AI at Sydney University. He said that whilst reports of thousands of jobs being lost should be ignored as click-bait stories, it’s true that AI will inevitably start to replace jobs that are dull, difficult, dirty or dangerous.

We’ve already seen AI at work in the finance, medical, mining and manufacturing sectors. Indeed recent estimates suggest that 12 million jobs have already been lost in the manufacturing industry alone.

But, and here was the caveat, human interaction and intervention is still required in many of these processes. Not least in people leading other people and ensuring that the systems themselves are created with empathy at their core, so that the interactions are as ‘natural’ as possible.

If you use voice technology on your device you’ll already have a good understanding of this. It was probably frustrating to begin with, but as the technology gets to know you better as you feed it more information about what you like and don’t like, it becomes easier and before you know it you’re getting information that you didn’t know you needed!

In order for us to help AI become the technology it’s meant to be, we need to ensure that it’s able to learn to become more empathetic in its responses. Empathy at work has been evident in the great working cultures around the world for years. For everyone else it is seen as ‘soft’ or ‘fluffy’ stuff and secondary to technical skills.

Building empathy at work

Empathy is the capacity to ​feel into another person​ or to ‘put yourself in someone else’s shoes!’. In practical terms this is about knowing someone well enough to be able to understand how they like to be communicated to and how they’ll react in different situations. It also means understanding how they view the world and the values that they hold dear. 

Building empathy at work requires things that we’re not especially good at. Namely, listening, time, openness and honest, courageous feedback. To be able to do these well requires individual behaviour change which can be hard to do and so many avoid doing it and carry on regardless.

Most workplace cultures throw people together, put the pressure on them to deliver and hope for the best.

Yet in workplaces where empathy at work is practised regularly organisations see the following benefits:

  • Increased collaboration; leading to
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved engagement
  • Increased customer confidence; and
  • Improved financial performance

While every organisation wants these things, when they are told that empathy at work is the starting point, rather than sending everyone on a standard training course or looking to implement a new process, they look confused!

What are you feeling?

Daniel Goleman found that empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence in his book of the same name. And the ability to read the emotions of another person, relies on you being able to read your own emotions first.

As Martyn Newman said in his book ​Emotional Capitalists‘If you are not fully aware of what emotions you are feeling and how it affects you, you lose a crucial piece of feedback to inform your actions.’

In preparing AI systems to do this in the future people in workforces around the world must learn how to do this now. Thankfully children are being taught about emotional intelligence and empathy in school. They’re better able to talk about how they feel and listen to others, than previous generations have been.

And it’s important to understand that if we want empathy to be inherent in our workplaces then we have to create a space that helps every member of staff with the change. It would be wrong to focus on Millennials or Baby Boomers, the workplace itself has to cater to everyone’s need for change.

The empathy mapping exercise is a great tool for understanding groups of stakeholders and what they might be thinking and feeling, seeing, hearing, saying and doing. This is an excellent way of taking the time to understand the needs of individuals or groups such that expectations can be set in the right way and communication is effective.

Once we’ve mastered empathy at work, we will be better able to build it into artificially intelligent machines that will make our lives easier than they are right now.

Great workplace cultures are all built on emotionally intelligent people who feel connected to what the team and organisation has to deliver. These people are high in empathy and are role models for people and machines to follow.

About the Author

Colin D Ellis is the author of Culture Fix: How to create a great place to work. He has worked with companies all over the world including Red Bull, Thomson Reuters and in New Zealand and Australia’s government to help them transform their cultures.

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