Creating a We for an Evolving World – Empathetic Leadership Book – Refactor – and the First of Two Introductory Posts

Panda Moment

Tomolol Village, West Papua, Indonesia, Dec. 2018 — Braden Pezeshki photo

A year ago, my chief collaborator, Ryan Martens, and I started work on a book called Empathetic Leadership.  We produced a first complete increment or, as we tech people are fond of saying, a Minimal Viable Product.  Based on feedback from that effort, we sharpened our pencil and wrote these two pieces to help correct some of our ills and direct the refactoring of those 185 pages. These two pieces represent our best effort to simplify, generalize and make more approachable our work.

We believe this book will focus on the rising generation of leaders who need to apply these tools quickly and not learn from trial and error.  Whether they are building new products, new policy, new legislation or new organizations they need to better leverage empathy in their approach and core values.  We hope you like these two posts and we would appreciate your comments on either of them directly or on this post, you could provide more general feedback on our target audience, approach, and meta-message.

Thank you for your attention and consideration,

Chuck and Ryan
Creating a We for an Evolving World — A Journey to an Empathetic, Sustainable Society

It is clear that in the United States, the social contract is running out.  The world has changed enough that the notion of: “You work hard and you will get ahead” is failing many people in the US. Our life expectancy goes down, our income inequality is going up, and the middle-class is declining in living standard far from the upper-class.  America is breaking into the haves – the 1%ers; and the have-nots, which comprise the 99% of others. Since most are in the 99% group, they are feeling the force of stagnated wages for 30 years, largely due to globalization driving wage competition and the ability of 1% to invest cheaply  in the market gains. It has created the “Winner Take All” world for the super elite, and that is as clear a problem as global warming.

We must come to terms that we are at an inflection point.  Many people point to a coming 4th Industrial Revolution, brought on by clean energy, autonomous electric vehicles and the Internet of Things.  All these technologies will dramatically change the infrastructure of the future. The good news is that this revolution is coming at the right time to address global and societal crises created by the exploitation of the last industrial revolution and its lack of empathy for its externalities.

This brings us back to the broken social contract. As the world becomes more connected, more real-time, more complex, the social contract for America needs to evolve to support a society that recognizes that we are all in this together.  The 1% or any one individual cannot beat the climate crisis alone. That social contract needs to recognize we are connected to the health of the planet, as well as ourselves and each other.

Needless to say, this contract needs to be more “We” focused than “I” focused.  But it cannot get there by neglecting the diversity inherent in the “I”. To that end, there is a fundamental need to understand an open, inclusive, and diverse definition of “We.”  It would be easy to adopt a definition of “We” that acknowledges all of us in classes and forgets to connect us to the Earth , ourselves or others as individuals outside our In-group, or inevitable organizational context. But if this is all we’ve got, this easily accessed, ancient definition drove wars, genocide and our current global problems.  Past performance may not necessarily predict future results. But, as Santayana said so eloquently, those that cannot learn from the past are destined to relive it. We are ready for a more inclusive definition of we, this go around.

The problem is that there are many voices out there, working to get us to accept that more homogenized “We”.  Nativist and cultural supremacists lead this charge, as it did earlier in history. It is an externally defined, and imposed “We”.  But such a view has deep costs. It is a frozen view of society. Roles, rewards, and responsibilities are pre-defined, the agency in people is minimized, and empathy is limited.  It is not a society that will be resilient in the face of change. And change is coming fast.

There is another way. Not all of the externally defined “We” is inherently bad.  We aren’t arguing to do away with table manners, holding your fork the right way, wearing underwear, or the Golden Rule.  No need to ban Flag Day. But If we take the benefit derived from a “We” created on the outside, and add to that a focus on personal development and empathy, we can combine it with a “We” that will naturally emerge through self-organization around our own independent selves, seeking connection to others.  We open ourselves up to other’s perspectives, and ideas — and most importantly, the addition of other people to our social sensor network. This new information flow, made possible by developed empathy, creates the vibrancy of community. Just in the same way love, and choice in partners create the genetic diversity necessary to keep the species from decaying.

Our survival as a species absolutely depends on it.  Why? Simply put, we will not be smart enough without the wisdom of an aware crowd. People raised in societies where “who they are” is defined from the outside will not develop the inherent intellectual and emotional intelligence to handle the increasing complexity of a global, technological society.  It’s true — we’re in an “all hands on deck” situation. But we will be far better off if those hands are people capable of their own observations, awareness of their own biases, nuance and possessing a capability for multi-solution thinking. A handful of experts (or Marvel super-heroes!) is not going to save the planet.  We need as many people as possible, acting in good faith, involved. And they can only be evolved through the development of the full stack of empathy.

What is a full stack of empathy?  We’re used to associating empathy solely with emotions – really sympathy for an individual or a cause, followed by some pro-social act. Empathy is much more than that.  It ranges from mirroring behavior, where if I yawn, you yawn, up through the familiar emotional connection understanding, and more complex theories of mind – with a whole range of timescales, and spatial scales involved with human experience.

Additionally, it’s becoming clear that empathy wires the brain for other problems involving complexity. The neuroscience research, notably Dr. Matt Lieberman’s research in the Social Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at UCLA,  is confirming the worldview both authors espouse – “as we relate, so we think.” When we practice relationships where empathy matters, this involves reading others emotions and faces. Honest, empathetic exchange involves responding to each other’s thoughts, as well as honestly, and rationally connecting.

This important pattern of taking in multiple streams of data from an individual creates the template for solving more complex problems. By practicing empathy, we become more data-driven, and more expansively rational in our own practice.  We consider broader spheres of responsibility, and different, diverse, and divergent sources of information, as well as people. That practice, in turn, also develops people who create complex technology, with surprising synergies. These will be the people capable of, in concert with social evolution, solving the complex, “wicked” problems threatening the survival of the species.

When that larger picture of inclusion emerges, conflict is minimized and a more harmonious — or really, coherent — society is created.  

Empathy and its development are far larger than the politics of Right and Left.  Consider Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book, The Righteous Mind.  In it, he makes the case that the Right is actually the party of We and the common good, while the Left, with its Identity politics, is the party of I and individualism. He talks about his own personal transformation toward understanding commonly accepted ‘We’ cultures, by discussing his own experiences in India.  

“My first few weeks in Bhubaneswar were therefore filled with feelings of shock and dissonance. I  dined with men whose wives silently served us and then retreated to the kitchen, not speaking to me the whole evening. I was told to be stricter with my servants, and to stop thanking them for serving me…”

“It only took a few weeks for my dissonance to disappear, not because I was a natural anthropologist but because the normal human capacity for empathy kicked in.  I liked these people… Rather than automatically rejecting the men as sexist oppressors and identifying the women, children and servants as helpless victims, I began to see a moral world in which families, not individuals, are the basic unit of society…  In this world, equality and personal autonomy were not sacred values. Honoring elders, gods, and guests, protecting subordinates, and fulfilling one’s role-based duties were more important.”

“I could see beauty in a moral code that emphasizes duty, respect for one’s elders, service to the group, and negation of the self’s desires.  I could still see its ugly side: I could see that power sometimes leads to pomposity and abuse. And I could see that subordinates – particularly women – were often blocked from doing what they wanted to do by the whims of their elders (male and female)… I had a place to stand, and from the vantage point of the ethic of community, the ethic of autonomy now seemed overly individualistic and self-focused.”

Haidt is at some level a persuasive writer. But what he’s really arguing for is for everyone to know their place. And stay in it.  The notion of defining “self” independently, outside of the social system, is either severely constrained, or simply not allowed. Agency and self-empathy, which are critical for the development of larger modes of person-to-person empathy, are absent.  

For the people at the top, the deal seems like a pretty good one. The problem is that with only slight modification, Haidt’s model could also be used to justify antebellum slavery in the United States.

What about the mainstream Left? The Left, with most of its philosophical engine devoted to capital ‘I’ Identity politics, is also not up to the task.  Why? They’re not so big on individual agency either. The “We” that the Left pushes is not really a ‘We’ – rather, it’s a hyper-fragmented ‘I’. There are lots of categories, perhaps with greater cultural or gender sensitivity, decided by your betters.  You may get to decide what pronouns describe yourself. But you’re still going to get put in a box.

If the Left doesn’t understand the argument made above, the Right will win this latest round of what it means to be a We in our country. Why? Because the vision the Right is pushing is simple. In a noisy, confusing and chaotic world, simple will win out. As an example of complexity, how many people really like the current code of political correctness?

How do we climb out of this narrow, small box? By creating environments that emphasize in people the development of both responsible agency, and connection to others. Our current culture must be the parent to what people and the planet need next. There are signs of rising consciousness that we detect — starting points along that journey, like the Green New Deal. We have to accept that such efforts will be imperfect to start. We must view them as the evolutionary experiments they are.

As important as initiatives like the Green New Deal are — the “what” progressives are attempting to accomplish — what we also need is a deeper understanding of the “why” of the social currents that brought us here in the first place. Until we grasp the actual social physics that run societies, and development pathways of the people that inhabit them, we’re far too likely to continue making the same mistakes over again when we’re forced to actually implement action plans for our larger platforms. We desperately need new maps — or more importantly, an understanding of how people generate their own maps in the first place.

Such deep insights would show how values change over time. We could understand what forces are in play, as societies evolve along the journey. And importantly, it would show the deeper values we need to emphasize — like care for others, as well as opportunities for individuals to form larger shared identities through participatory politics. It would inform the development of both education and experiences that could pop the insulating bubbles far too many people live in today.

The challenge with that type of understanding is that it is deeply systemic in viewpoint. And systemic understandings do not set so easily on most people’s minds.  We are used to discussing anecdotes — with empathy, it is usually considering interactions between two people. But that larger systemic understanding of empathy is required to show how empathy works across organizations, societies, and social networks, as a larger organizing force. Most of our work is dedicated to that different perspective.  It creates a tool for viewing the past, as well as glimpsing, though sometimes through a glass darkly, our potential futures.

An analog of this larger project of defining social physics might be understanding how NASA has managed to send spaceships to Jupiter and beyond, with incredible success.  NASA couldn’t fly to Jupiter and measure all the various forces at play in pursuing a planetary fly-by. But, with careful work, they could discern the guiding principles at work.  Partially through theoretical mathematics, partially through careful observation, and empirical measurement of the world around Jupiter, mapped to analogs here on Earth, NASA created an accurate mental model that allowed the creation of the Voyager 1 spacecraft.  The testament to that approach is that over 40 years later, Voyager 1 not only flew by Jupiter, Saturn and Titan. It still flies, contributing scientific insights to us back on Earth.

Such a system, and the understandings of social physics is not hypothetical.  It is challenging and non-trivial. It is based on a principle from the software community, called Conway’s Law, that maps social systems to design and knowledge creation.  It moves past looking at relationships between two people, into a deeply systemic perspective.  Explaining the relationships between canonical social systems, empathy, and emergent knowledge structures is beyond the scope of this piece.  But if you want to understand this, read the masthead posts — and drop us a line.  We’re always happy to connect.

How does one get started in the journey toward higher empathy?  Here are some vectors we’ve found to be useful. They start with the personal and evolve toward the systemic. Both matter.

  1. Develop the ability to truly listen to people.  There are many books out there on empathic, or active listening. Repeating what’s said to you is a great start.  Making sure you actually heard the words coming out of someone’s mouth, and matching the context by reading their facial expressions opens up another huge information pathway.  If you’re in a business setting, bring your customer into the room with you during some appropriate point in the decision-making process. Evaluate your performance. How do you change the direction you take after listening to her?
  2. Review a person’s opinion through contemplation after an exchange. Reflect on how your biases and beliefs potentially alter the message in a person’s words, and the context they’re placing. After listening, can you model their perspective enough to predict the direction of their next commentary?
  3. Understand empathy as more than a one-off, one-size-fits-all interaction.  Every time you talk or communicate with someone, connect with someone, you’re connecting on multiple levels — some more emphasized than others.  The first challenge in empathy is to understand yourself and how you actually relate to others. This is why contemplative practices work to have you observe how thoughts come in and leave your mind.
  4. Observe and generalize the empathetic interactions you have within the context of the larger social system your organization possesses.  Do you only talk to people whose path is declared on your org. chart? Is it taboo to go outside those lines and talk around authority? Are things fine as long as you reach across to people at your same level?  Can you characterize how you perceive flexing you relational muscles in the context of you picking who you want to talk to? Can you observe how these interactions create the shape of your deliverables or work products?  How do these interactions influence your design process or approach?

As we relate, so we think.  We’ve found in our work that this core principle holds through observation, testing, and experimentation.  But developing larger empathy, as well as the broader systemic implications of the human, or really sentient condition, must be a shared journey.  We also need fellow travelers and coaches. We fully realize that the solutions that will be generated, once we embrace empathy, will be emergent — which means we can’t know the specifics at the beginning.  Though the end game and solution may elude us at the start, we have to trust in connection. It is our only hope.


3 thoughts on “Creating a We for an Evolving World – Empathetic Leadership Book – Refactor – and the First of Two Introductory Posts

  1. Haidt’s book ‘the righteous mind’ is from 2012.
    I think he wrote that when he was at U Va (where there was this ‘unite the right’ rally not long ago and someone was killed, and some police officers in a helicopter were as well in a crash).

    His most recent one from 2018 is ‘the coddling of the American mind’ which has the thesis that Americans are spoiled brats who cannot handle ‘alternative facts’. Now he is at NYU Stern school of business. They are sort of ‘stern’ rather than ’empathetic’.

    Haidt was never ‘coddled’ or spoiled. Grew up in Scarsdale (median family income of only 290,000$ . My area has median family income of maybe 35,000$—so we are coddled and spoiled. I had family friends in Scarsdale–a married couple—1 a professor, 1 a social worker in Harlem, and their gay son. My family knew them because the social worker grew up with my mother in North Dakota when they lived on small farms and then in Fargo. ).

    There are many books and papers which use the term social physics. Some as a metaphor, and some involves the same equations used in physics—sde’s. (A topic in my area is STDs –i hope i dont have any–so far i haven’t. Another issue is gun violence, and they arrested some military guy around here for suspected domestic terrorism plot—had lots of guns and neo-nazi sympathies. ‘thanks for your service’)


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