In the traditional office, small acts of kindness and empathy were more obvious. You held open the door for people carrying boxes. You brought someone a cupcake on their birthday. You gave someone a pat on the shoulder when they look like they need support. You handed someone a tissue when they teared up.
In the workplace of the future, we need to rethink compassion. We can offer small acts of compassion in the virtual workplace. We offer to open a virtual door by taking small task off their plate. We send a happy birthday note in the mail to a teammate. We can use emojis wisely to convey support or other emotions.
A bigger and more interesting challenge is how organizations can show compassion to their employees. We continue to struggle with organizational empathy. The actions of an organization make a statement concerning empathy toward its employees.
For example, people right now search for increased flexibility and autonomy at work. When considering organizational action, we need to rethink basic assumptions around time off and incentives:
· Why do we need PTO?
· Why don’t we say, “I expect you not to work X number of days per year.”
· Why do we assume single people don’t need leave time the way parents do?
· Why do we assume financial incentives are more meaningful than nonfinancial incentives?
Like the nine-to-five workweek, the history of Human Resources (HR) (Human Resources Degrees 2022) reveals the origins of these assumptions. In the early twentieth century, HR ideas came into fruition with the rise of trade unions and personnel management departments. Early HR related back to the idea that treating workers as people lead to better business outcomes. It reacted against the Industrial Revolution when work conditions were extraordinarily poor, and workers were treated as disposable commodities.
By the middle of the twentieth century, universities taught HR and HR departments became a part of corporate America. These days, most large companies have a separate HR department with business partners tasked with managing all the people issues in the organization. People argue that HR departments are no longer needed and that HR should no longer be a separate group (Marr 2018). Rather, they should embed it within each functional unit of the organization.
I agree with this formulation — the people function of HR is not a stand-alone siloed task. Everything an organization does depends on people — unless your organization is run by robots. This idea that empathy is present in all work correlated to the way the human brain processes empathy. Looking at the brain, we see multiple brain areas involved in empathy. There is no HR part of the brain.
Cognitive empathy — the human neocortex (specifically the frontal lobe of our brain) is involved in the thinking part of emotion. What in my past experience gives me clues of what the other person is thinking?
Emotional empathy — the amygdala is an older part of the human brain and is directly connected to emotions. What am I sensing from the other person who is triggering an emotional response inside of me?
Compassionate empathy — the motor cortex and cerebellum are action centers in the human brain. They take instructions from other areas of the brain or reflexes to plan and execute actions. What actions do I need to take to show the other person that I see them and care?
Being empathetic requires all three parts of your brain. The successful expression of empathy involves a coordinated brain effort. Humans do not possess a separate little piece of our brain which we turn on and off when we want to be empathetic! Encoded throughout the human brain, this is visible in the mirror cells, which help us mirror other humans. Mirroring cells exist in a variety of locations in the human brain.
We continue to learn the neuroscience of empathy; a 2018 article showed researchers used imaging studies to better understand these brain functions (Mackes 2018). This article found cognitive empathy to be as important as emotional empathy when trying to understand other people’s emotions. In other words, multiple parts of the brain worked together create empathy for others.