‘And yet, to say the truth, reason and love keep little company together nowadays’ – William Shakespeare
Where are we?
Nowadays. An interesting but undervalued word; not the first that strikes you in ole’ Bill’s lament. But, mind you, that which goes undetected is often that which proves most salient.
Let’s look a little closer. Nowadays. It implies change, a new state of affairs in which the previous concert of reason and love (feelings of empathy and compassion) has been thrown into discord.
Nowadays. Where are we nowadays? Well, the current business climate is one of constant change – unprecedented change, in fact. As organisations and individuals try to adapt to new contingencies in the business world certain actions and decisions must be taken.
How do these actions affect people? In a business landscape littered with big red flashing roadsigns advocating things like ‘downscaling’ and ‘doing more with less’ – the words strobing in your eyes like manic fireflies – such processes present themselves as the best method of budgeting and resource maximization for any rational decision-maker. Yet the emotional costs offset onto overwhelmed executives, managers, and team members can feel Sisyphean.
Such decisions are made with supreme focus on process. How will we achieve the best figures, what are the statistical benefits, will they outweigh the costs, will the books be balanced? But other questions are marginalised: what will the real effects on people be – on our employees, customers, and others? What happens when reason overrides empathy?
By way of analogy, let us look at George Osborne’s recent proposal of cuts to tax credit. A ‘low welfare, high wage, low tax’ policy would ostensibly balance the books. This means it is unilaterally the right thing to do. Correct?
No. You see, this policy could seriously impoverish a quotient of the population. The cuts, although successful on paper, fail in practice because they don’t appreciate the real emotional effect on or reaction of the people. Rachel Sylvester of The Times believes ‘there is too little emotional intelligence underlying [Osborne’s] intellectual strength’ and that, if he still fosters Prime-ministerial aspirations, he will have to display public empathy, ‘the ability to win people over by persuading them he understands how they feel’.
To lead successfully it is vital to appeal to the hearts as well as the minds of those under your jurisdiction, to marry empathy and reason. Instead of eschewing or underappreciating the role emotions play in priming people’s moods, and the effect this has on performance and productivity, it is important to develop emotional intelligence, to understand the supreme influence of people’s emotions on their attitude. Even Machiavelli knew that the best leaders should be ‘clement and not cruel’, likeable, not emotionless.
How does this apply to business?
To return to the workplace, it is crucial for leaders to acknowledge that people’s interpretation of events is powerfully influenced by their emotions viz. their mood state, mindset, perceptual biases. As Epictetus surmised, ‘it is not what happens to us, but the view we take on it’; and as the Bard would have it, ‘there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so’.
Governed by our emotions, the view which we take on a situation determines how we will act. It is possible to prime our emotions in such a way that encourages mutual understanding, engendering reciprocity and respect.
We also have a proclivity for certain ‘psychological contracts’. These are unwritten sets of expectations we have with others in the workplace and elsewhere, established norms which we’re inured to. One such contract revolves around a desire to be treated with rational empathy and understanding by our colleagues and superiors. If this is broken – and in the changing business climate it is often very abruptly broken – then we have a tendency to become stressed and negative, primed into a bad mood state which will discolour our perception of events.
For instance, when the size of a team is halved from 6 members to 3, the workload is consequentially condensed and siphoned onto 3 people, saving money but piling on pressure. If the team members aren’t sufficiently placated during this change, and leaders show a disregard for the significant upshift in stress levels caused as a result of their decision to downscale, then the 3 workers may become angry. Because our hearts affect our heads, feelings of discontent and inequity may lead to the workers becoming unreceptive, noncompliant, and unproductive, meaning the purportedly profitable managerial decision to downsize and is actually counter-productive, undercutting the very reason from which it came.
Acting without empathy and discounting how the change that is created by the decisions we make is not a rational route to success. Instead, we must reacquaint reason and empathy, moving forward with hearts and minds engaged and in gear.
How can we do this?
At Positive, we focus on building the emotional literacy of individuals, teams, and organisations. We create research-based tools which enable insights into our emotional states, allowing us to evaluate how our emotions affect our behaviours, attitudes, and decisions. Acknowledging and adjusting our potentially negative emotional tendencies is possible if we begin to understand how and under what circumstances they occur.
Our emotions are the ‘secret authors’ of our actions. In order to flourish in our lives and work, building emotional literacy and establishing an equilibrium between our reasoning and emotional functions is key.
To unite reason and empathy we must begin to understand ourselves, to trace the trodden tracks of our minds with careful tread, gaining solid traction by examining ourselves and treating others as we would want others to treat us: rationally and empathetically.
1: The Times, Tuesday 3rd November, 2015.