Using the Principle of Reinforcement for Evolving Empathetic Teams (II)


So how does one go about developing more empathetic team members?  The beauty of understanding the empathy pyramid, combined with using the societal/leadership authority present in the Principle of Reinforcement, tell us what is more likely to stick earlier on in the process.

Not surprisingly, enlightened master Mahatma Gandhi said ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’  Directly addressed by mirroring behavior, this statement addresses the first tier of any empathetic transition of an organization.  Leaders have to demonstrate the behavior, and this is a well-known principle of management.

The other levels offer more guidance on behaviors.  Emotional empathy, where leaders honestly feel other people’s successes and pain, can establish the leader as a compassionate individual.  Compassionate leaders are typically held in high regard — which at some level is a status-based response, and is a primary incentive in authoritarian/legalistic organizations.

Rational empathy, best exhibited by place-taking, is where things start to get tricky.  Real rational empathy is challenging for most people.  Fundamental egocentricity has to be overcome — remember when I talked about giving my students a customer as a way of combating this tendency.

But there are other ways.  Great spiritual teachers, divine or not, depending on your belief system, have invented what I call ’empathetic ladders’ –development tools for creation of complex empathetic response in individuals who are not particularly highly evolved.

One of my favorites is Jesus Christ’s  The Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.”  How did this come about?

I can imagine Jesus sitting around one day, pondering his ostensible flock.  “Father, what can I do with these people?  They’re mostly pretty egocentric, thinking only of themselves.  I really would like them to understand their fellow man and woman, and comprehend the individual journey each of us are on in this world.  I’d like them not just to develop rational empathy, but global empathy as well, and realize that we are all connected in our existence.  I’d like them to think not just about what the people individually ask for, but what they honestly need by considering their past, as well as their future.”

And then he said “Nah — they’re never gonna get that.  Do unto others…”

What’s fascinating about the Golden Rule is that it is what I call an empathetic, or Spiral Ladder.  At first blush, everyone will respond to the Golden Rule, especially if one considers the more drastic potential alternatives.  I don’t want to die, so I won’t kill someone.  I don’t want to have my stuff stolen, so I won’t steal someone else’s stuff.

But once you get past the Ten Commandments, things start getting a bit more tricky.  I like chocolate ice cream.  Does that mean I should go out and distribute chocolate ice cream to the lactose-intolerant?  And so on.

Yet if we practice the Golden Rule, it evolves rational empathy.  The first time you bring someone chocolate ice cream to someone who doesn’t like it, you’re cued to pay attention to what that person’s preferences are.  If you can’t provide that preference, then you show a little compassion.  I am never able to bring home for my Taiwanese wife red bean ice cream, so I have to demonstrate sympathy for her deprivation.  She remarked on a picture of a child eating a roasted Japanese yam.  So the next time I was in the Asian grocery store, I made sure to pick one up.

And of course the evolution continues.  So many of our favorite treats are from childhood.  You might like oatmeal cookies because your mom made them.  But what were the childhood treats in Taiwan?  What was childhood like at all?  Was there a whole lot of joy besides studying for tests?  (Hint — not that much!)

Most business development/success books focus on the transition between Authoritarian/Legalistic title-based leadership and Performance-based Communitarianism in evolving corporations because in American business culture, that’s where a lot of the work that needs to be done is.  There is no better example of this than Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

But that landscape is changing.  Now, good leaders work to identify the level of empathetic development of each of their employees, and then construct ladders to help them evolve.  As our workforces gentrify, people in their 50s are looking for different structures of meaning than people in their 20s.  And that’s going to demand a different toolkit of both understanding and pathways.

Takeaways:  Using the Principle of Reinforcement, smart leaders seek to evolve their employees, both by working with them directly and creating environments where ways of being drive empathetic growth. Since all employees are different people, each of them will need something different to help them on their own pathway toward higher meaning.  Empathetic ladders, such as the Golden Rule, offer a way to accelerate development by combining v-Memes where people are in a way that reinforces where the leader would like them to be.

Further reading:  Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps, is a great collection of accessible stories containing age-old empathetic ladders.

One thought on “Using the Principle of Reinforcement for Evolving Empathetic Teams (II)

  1. While I have not read all your posts, I have read some of them and shared them on FB. I bought a book at the Seminary Bookstore at the University of Chicago ( by Albert Schweitzer — his autobiography, “Out of My Life and Thought”. I found the Epilogue very inspiring and even wrote something in response. At any rate, if you have not seen it, you should have a look.


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