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John M. Eger

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Business Empathy 

Posted: 03/21/2013 12:01 pm

More and more academics, design professionals and business executives are talking about the importance of empathy as a first step to creativity and innovation, the benchmarks of the so-called new economy. Empathy they say -- not apathy, not sympathy -- is fast becoming the secret to corporate success.

Wired magazine said empathy is "a revolutionary force for change ... social co-operation and mutual aid will be key forces from product marketing methods to informing policy and peace initiatives."

And art based learning, indeed the arts in any form, can give business people the capacity to see the world differently, to think differently and see the important connections that enable them to be creative and innovative, the skills most in demand in the new economy.

According to Nancy Adler, Professor of International Management at McGill University:

"As we enter the 21st century, leaders recognize that we cannot create financially successful companies and an equitable, peaceful, sustainable world by simply applying yesterday's approaches to business. Global society's hoped-for future can never be achieved through mere projections -- linear or otherwise -- extrapolated from past trends. Not even the best set of marketing, accounting, finance, and IT techniques, no matter how rigorously applied, will get us from here to where we want to go. The very essence of 21st-century leadership increasingly demands the passionate creativity of artists."

Walter Chen, the co-creator of iDoneThis, an email-based productivity log, agrees:

"For all the debate over whether "corporations are people", what's striking about companies who have human beings as customers is that it requires its individual, hopefully human being, employees to empathize in order to deliver effective customer service. When there's an organizational culture of apathy, a lack of ability -- or worse, a refusal -- to feel empathy for customers, to understand their emotions regarding a product or service, a company cannot be successful."

The more our world depends on broadband, computers, and super fast connections, the more we need, as the old Indian proverb says, to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, understand what someone else is thinking, how they feel, and be responsive.

Biologist and author of The Age of Empathy, Frans de Waal, argues that that empathy is something innate, that we are born with the capacity to care for each other much like our primate cousins.

But most of us need to learn or relearn how to be empathetic, to develop habits that are part of our daily lives. Roman Krznaric, founding faculty member of The School of Life in London and empathy adviser to organizations including Oxfam and the United Nations, has found the six habits of highly empathetic people:

Habit 1: Cultivate curiosity about strangers
Habit 2: Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities
Habit 3: Try another person's life
Habit 4: Listen hard -- and open up
Habit 5: Inspire mass action and social change
Habit 6: Develop an ambitious imagination

More businesses are looking to art-based learning, or as they are often called, art based initiatives, to help them be more empathetic. Brigitte Biehl-Missal of Aberystwyth University, and Ariane Berthoin Antal of Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung, have compiled research on the impact of arts-based initiatives and noted that:

"Arts-based interventions in organizations take a wide diversity of forms and involve all kinds of arts. There are short projects lasting only a few hours, as well as those lasting days, weeks or months. Among the possibilities, to mention just a few, are artists-in-residence; organizational theater; theater workshops; poetry workshops; art collections; workshops with painting or sculpture; music projects and presentations by orchestra conductors, jazz bands, or tango dancers."

Importantly, says Anna Sundt, a UK artist and consultant to business, "Initiatives which partner the arts with business act as powerful catalysts to fast-track learning, develop key organizational competencies, grow organizational cultures and release hidden potential in employees."

 

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