January 27th 2016
He’s pulled me to front counter at the end of my shift. Out of earshot of everyone else. They’re cleaning up. They don’t need instruction, they’ve been doing it the same way, in the same order, for years. Like greasy teenage robots. Lots of things are beeping, but that’s normal.
I don’t want to talk to him; I don’t want him to tell me he’s disappointed or I need to try harder – because that’s impossible. I keep telling him I’m doing the best I can, but he wants more.
“I know you can’t switch off”, he begins, “but – ” and said something about not liking it when I give him ‘attitude’. I guess that must be his word for the thing I do when I stop talking to him after he tells me to forget what’s happening at home and focus on my shift. I walked away from him, not giving him a chance to finish. I know I’ve made him really angry now.
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo
(Daddy, Sylvia Plath)
In late 1913, Henry Ford introduced the world’s first production line, to fill the need for cheap, fast (efficient) production. To achieve this he consulted Frederik Taylor, the creator of scientific management theory. This theory is based on the idea of transferring impersonal, scientific method into human resource management. It involved removing autonomy from skilled workers and simplifying jobs into mindless tasks which could be performed by even the most unskilled workers. Taylor argued this would increase productivity and efficiency far more effectively than the old “initiative and incentive” method of motivating employees, which incentivised workers to increase their productivity but gave them the freedom to conduct their routine in any form they wished.
With help from Taylor, Ford was able to reduce the cost of making cars dramatically, and exponentially increased his output simultaneously. Even today he continues to be praised for revolutionising the workplace. At the time, his employees had it pretty good; they were paid far above the award rate and their hours were cut. Today’s workers, who receive neither benefit, remain employed by a rigid system which is suffering invisibly without empathy in its bloodstream.
George Ritzer is an American sociologist who looked at this paradigm later, in 1993. Ritzer’s concept of McDonaldisation is an update of Weber’s bureaucracy theory. It comments on the current “economic and social order” as being comprised of efficiency, calculability, standardisation and control. He argues this concept has “rippled” from fast food human resource structure across many organisations in various industries.
These three men have a magnitude of people to answer to. From the drowsy patient, stiffened with pain, staring at a corpse being wheeled out of the building he’s about to be operated in, who asks the doctor what he saw (even though he knows), to that same doctor who doesn’t know the standard answer, and who lost control of the situation when the corpse was sighted, and has forgotten, from thousands of student hours poring over text books, from hundreds of exams filling in tiny dots with a 2B pencil, and who has been taught, from years of practice, how to isolate himself from patients, emotionally, because it’s easier. Twenty years into his career, it’s all he knows. From the social worker, so overcome with grey from her emotionally exhausting work that she has to leave, not having enough support from upper management to stay safely, to the fast food Area Manager who knows that of the most recent three managers employed, none have stayed more than several months. He mindlessly punches those numbers into a new turnover statistic, forgetting that these people have stories which can be learned from. From the woman returning to her workplace after a battle with cancer crossing paths with a colleague who hasn’t been trained in what to say. Because we come to work to produce statistics, results, goods – nothing more. This is a structural issue.
Ultimately, we must remember businesses exist to generate profit. They have a responsibility to society to be profitable to benefit the community in an economic sense, as well as keep its employees at work. But humans are still humans, and they have stories; they have what Kate Bowles refers to as details.
There is a Japanese word; in English we call it kaizen. It means continuous improvement and it’s what organisations all over the world strive to do. Over the last century or two, continuous improvement has been synonymous with increasing efficiency. Specifically this includes eliminating waste and reducing time and cost in standardised processes. These are worthy objectives, but what is the cost of this narrow focus on the humans inside these organisations?
This isn’t how the workplace ought to exist.
Arthur Frank says that generosity begins with a welcome: “a hospitality that offers whatever the host has that would meet the need of the guest”, even if that guest may be disruptive or demanding. In her exploration of homosexual and transgender education in schools, Jen Gilbert refers to Derrida’s maxim, “let us say yes to who or what turns up“. She gifts us an anecdote of a party in which a neighbour’s eight year old “boy who may be a girl” turns up in a party dress. The child’s parents laugh it off but the neighbours are uncomfortable with the ‘interruption’; it’s not a norm, nor by the book and therefore they do not know how to act.
We can relate Gilbert’s discussion of “saying yes” to what turns up in a classroom (walking through the door radiating kindness, ready to listen to twenty students each coming from vastly different homes – some of which may be happy, some broken, some violent, some stricken with illness – and prepared to adapt to their needs) to the workplace. The concept of sonder applies beautifully here. Each person we meet has an intricate, delicate and fruitful life which we aren’t usually exposed to, at least completely, and because we can’t see it, we don’t consider it.
I value the way a compassionate boss won’t fire someone because they need the day off to take care of their mental health. I value the teacher who actually listens to a student’s problems that are affecting their work. I value the compassion afforded to those who are ill, whether be an invisible illness or physical – Maddy Cook
In short, the sense of empathy embedded in the structure of organisations tends to be highly conditional. Mark Westmoreland argues that conditional hospitality is somewhat exclusive in the west; it has historically been juridical and regulated. It is concerned with rights, duties and obligations. Neither acceptance, nor empathy, exist in this model. Immanuel Kant presented a perpendicular model; he claims that, in terms of hospitality, the “right of a stranger” is strictly limited to not being treated with hostility.
The latter paragraph sketches a brief but uncomfortable caricature of many industries in Australia (and I daresay beyond). If your manager doesn’t assault you physically and pays you correctly, you don’t complain.
The former paragraphs contain beautiful ideas from Frank, Gilbert and Derrida, three exquisite thinkers – but that’s all they are: ideas. A clash sometimes exists between academic theory and physical field work. It’s not usually obvious; we all have a tendency to believe our ideas will work, but when these theories are proposed as answers to real-world problems, we sometimes end up using squares to patch up circular holes. Awkwardness crawls through the gaps and the solution becomes truncated and half-effective at best.
Sadri, Weber and Gentry published a paper on workplace empathy in 2016 which claims that empathy is the quintessential ingredient to effective leadership. Their corresponding study revealed that empathy has a positive relationship with workplace performance. There’s absolutely nothing new here. They go on to present some decent arguments for incorporating empathy in the workplace (aka it increases productivity and efficiency), backed up by solid academic sources. The paper even provides various how-to’s detailing skills on listening and encouraging empathetic discussion. This theory is fluffy, pleasant and encouraging – but in no way practical in making real change.
Talking about empathy is great, telling people how to be empathetic is wonderful – but the whole argument backing up empathy is still aligned to efficiency like a magnet. This might not be enough to push the mammoth shift we need. On a perpendicular scale, efficiency is so deeply embedded into organisational structure that a ‘how-to’ isn’t going to cut it. Even if we manage to convince managers that empathy is important, and we take the time to teach it to them, time constraints make it unreasonable to assume they’ll actually take the time and care to incorporate empathy into their structure. The empathy strategies suggested by Sadri, Weber and Gentry disclaim that each exercise “takes time” – time that efficiency-driven organisations do not have to spare on a regular basis. Structurally this is difficult to achieve.
The conflict between hospitality and practicality is as old as organized medicine. Practical lack of resources is immediately complicated by possibilities of financial gain (Arthur Frank)
Can efficiency goals be realigned so that the most important key performance indicator is staff turnover? If this were the case, empathy might organically reinvest itself into organisational culture as an attempt at understanding, listening and delivering to employees, to keep the staff turnover ratio low. Realistically, the only way organisations can learn to value staff turnover is if they are in a position where they genuinely need staff to stay. Where could this happen? In an economy where the demand for labour is significantly higher than it is now; a world where employers are fighting to hire employees, rather than vice versa. It’s unlikely, in the current economic climate, that this will occur naturally. Indeed, it is far more probable that the power gap will continue to stretch, through the increasing use of robots which are predicted to replace humans in the workplace in the near future.
Not guns, not abuses,
But a thin silence.
Wrapped in flea ridden donkey skins,
Empty of complaint, forever
Drinking vinegar from tin cups: they wore
The insufferable nimbus of the lot-drawn
(The Thin People, Sylvia Plath)
Injecting empathy into a static organisational structure is a feat by itself, but we’re dealing with a dynamic structure which is becoming increasingly industrialised at an exponential rate. On one end of this structure, as already mentioned, we have employers increasingly treating employees purely as a means for generating profit. On the other end of the spectrum we are victims of corporations which suck data out of our internet practices. This does nothing to shake corporations’ views of people as less than humans.
Firstly we can examine the role the internet plays in tertiary education. A plethora of degrees have become available online. Despite benefits of cost and convenience (efficiency), there is absolutely minimal face to face contact between student and teacher, and between students. Very much the most authentic communication between student and teacher is numerical and/or categorised grades. This strips education of empathy and sets a worrying standard for future adult employees.
Secondly, automated robots have been predicted to “inevitably” replace humans at work, doing everything from making burgers to driving public transport, providing sexual pleasure and writing news stories, according to economist Eduardo Pol. Despite the trajectory of technology for creating robots anywhere close to human capability being far off, robots are likely to slowly transcend upon the workforce. They don’t require empathy, understanding, and certainly not listening. This is no encouragement, nor example, for employers to demonstrate empathy to their staff.
Thirdly, freelance culture is a growing phenomenon. An employer can become a faceless intermediary between freelancer and client. Again, the lack of human contact and expression is a dangerous standard to be setting. I fear that over the next decade, this will become the norm, and we will be even further from setting structural empathy standards than we are today. Not recognising employees, who walk through a door at 9am, produce goods for profit and leave at 5pm, as human beings, has disastrous impacts on organisational culture, multiple industries, and a variety of worlds which exist outside of business.
This movement can be seen in the way that the migration of humans from places of famine, dire war and natural disasters, has been choked by ideas called borders, and white men in business suits who call some humans “asylum seekers”, and don’t consider their details because of that. Borders are invisible colanders which strain through ‘desirable data’, leaving clumps details caught in the rusty, silver dish. Borders are something that someone decided we had to protect, even though they were never threatened by these people.
Say yes to what turns up.
This is where we can start. There’s little we can do to influence efficiency-obsessed men in black suits at the top of bureaucratic hierarchies. Efficiency is their responsibility, they simply don’t have room for deep empathy in their day to day timetables, even if they want to.
There are twenty-three of us in BCM311.
That’s twenty-three workplaces we will become part of over the next several years as we graduate. That’s twenty-three workplaces we can lead by example. If some of us end up in leadership roles, we have the capacity to influence more people directly. As we work our way up corporate ranks, this number just keeps increasing. It’s been predicted that millennials will dance between 6-7 careers in their lifetime; 15-20 jobs each. If you project some numbers, the capacity of the 2017 BCM311 class to brew empathy and listen slowly but stoutly in workplaces all over, surely some change could be predicted. If we manage to influence other people on our way, who go on to ignite and practice empathy on their own paths, the number continues to grow. At a micro level, we have a real chance to make a difference. We can build up to a structural change over several decades, even generations. Norms can be adjusted over time. At this point, perhaps this is all we can hope for.
He messaged me later on.
“I don’t want to come across as saying ‘just turn it off’, as I know it gets hard and you have a lot going on, but I’m just really trying to keep it professional.”