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The Third Era of Management, And Why Empathy Means More Than Ever

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: December 3, 2015

“Empathy is the quintessential skill for the 21st century workplace.”

—Roman Krznaric


Gray skies filled with the black noxious waves of smokestacks. Compact factory assembly lines of human and metal, of sweat and dust. The heartbeat and whistle of the steamboat. Textile machines whirring like hard rain on tin roofs. These are the images that shape our history textbooks. These are the sounds that fill our documentaries. This is the industrial revolution. Before this, we’re told, everything was made by hand. After this, we’re told, many things were made by machines.

But this didn’t paint a full picture then, and it doesn’t paint one now.

The industrial revolution, as we’ve come to know it, erupted during the late 18th century when people in England learned how to harness the power of rivers and streams in order to generate the power needed to mechanize the textile industry. It’s at this point that Samuel Slater, often referred to as “the industrial spy,” memorized all that he saw in the mills, boarded a ship, and in 1789 brought his knowledge to the U.S. where he would become known as the “father of the American factory system.” The U.S. would go on to mass produce not only textiles, but furniture and all sorts of household goods.

By the late 19th century, farmers were leaving their difficult jobs under the blue skies to find what would come to be perhaps even more difficult jobs inside the factories of American cities. Think standing in one place for 10 hours at an assembly line, think of lifelong farmers now needing to ask permission to piss, think feeling pressured to give your child opiates so they would sleep and you could work, think major increases in productivity but people (and children) often being seen as merely a means to the finished product.

So while the shift from agrarian to industrial certainly built the modern societies we’re now part of, it also broke certain habits of our empathy.

What empathy looks like

One way to understand empathy is to juxtapose it with sympathy—a word we often use as though it’s synonymous. RSA put together this 3-minute animated film (based on a talk by research professor Brené Brown), to highlight how drastically different these words are:

As mentioned in the video, empathy is often described in the context of the four qualities found by nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman. She published an article in 2007 in which she described them as such: empathy as an incident, empathy as a way of knowing, empathy as a process, and empathy as a way of being. They’re frequently interpreted to mean:

(1) Perspective taking: a willingness and ability to try to see situations/experience as others may see them. “Stepping into another person’s shoes.”

(2) Bearing witness: to step into that situation/experience without judgement or otherwise dismissive behavior.

(3) Understanding feelings: this of course means we’ve spent time feeling our own feelings so that, in the moment, we can put them aside while being guided by what they taught us.

(4) Communicate accordingly: based on our “read” of those feelings, we’re able to go beyond recognition, and toward mindfully communicating our understanding.

The Machinery of Mind

What they told us stands true: many things were made by machines. These machines would lead to greater machines that would eventually lead to whatever machine you’re reading this on. These machines, of course, forever changed the way we work, and they promoted all sorts of positive human progress. But the part rarely told is how our fascination with them changed how we thought about work and how we treated each other at work. Our machine fascination meant that we learned to see immense stability as normal, and that we viewed workers as merely part of a machine that made a part of a machine.

Whereas we once depended on the land and felt an empathic connection to it, industrial work in factories often disconnected us with our environment. The result was that land (and our work on it) went from something that was carefully balanced to something “out there” that should be conquered and capitalized on. For many, the environment—that place and sense of place that shapes our stories and ways of being—was replaced by one entirely different. Holli Elliott, in her piece for the Accokeek Foundation, described the agrarian-industrial shift like this:

It divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding our fellow creatures, our world, and ourselves.”

This new way of working during the industrial revolution was jarring on a variety of fronts. Work moved from hand to machine; people accustomed to the close relationships formed in small communities felt trapped in chaotic cities; and a capitalistic system began to emerge that leveraged the intense work ethic of the farmer while layering in an obsession with scale. Elliott, again:

The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits. This is exactly the opposite of the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits: by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs. If we use up the good possibilities in this place, we will import goods from some other place, or we will go to some other place. If nature releases her wealth too slowly, we will take it by force. In the industrial society, if we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some specialized corporation will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey.”  

This mindset shift, fueled by the new way of work, also meant that neighbors could go from people we have deep relationships with to people who simply live next door. The result was that empathy for those next door no longer had quite the same need to be. And when this was coupled by a new system of work (where days were determined not by sun but by someone else’s idea of “done”), a new level of competition arose.

This competition was often posited as the only means for innovation and progress, and in many ways it rewarded the dog-eat-dog mentality. After all, with less empathy for our neighbors, the people around us could more likely become the less-cared-for “others.” And so the impossibility of infinite economic growth, even if it meant harming countless others in the process, became the cherished ideology. It could at once be the carrot and the stick.

As businesses scaled, and more workers poured into factories, huge industrial organizations formed in ways the world had never seen. To maintain it all and steer it toward productivity would be an immense challenge—the answer to that challenge would create the field that we now know as “management.”

The Three Eras of Management

In her piece at Harvard Business Review, Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, refers to there being three eras of management, and this first era was all about execution. This included “mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting.”

This revolution was primarily top-down; those thinking about management were typically doing so in a way that didn’t take into account employee insights, even though they were coming up with ways to streamline employee labor for maximum productivity. Also growing during this period was a realization that the complexities of management deserved dedicated periods of study, not just learning on the fly. From that grew the first business school at a university.

The second era of management, according to McGrath, was all about expertise. By the late 20th century, the field of management was growing and even splintering off into sub-categories as new theories prevailed. Companies would claim their success was a result of one theory or the other, and books exploring various theories of management were being published in response to other books on the topic. The field of management had entered an enlightenment.

But there was one problem. As the ways we worked kept changing, the mindset and metaphors through which we came to understand management stayed the same. Our new machine mindset was now troubling for a variety of reasons, not least of which was because a new kind of work and worker was beginning to blossom.

Peter Drucker, a management guru of the expertise era, coined the term “knowledge work.” He saw there was something missing in the ways people were discussing the changing nature of work—nobody seemed to be charting the changing nature of workers. For Drucker, the stories we’d been telling ourselves about how best to produce goods weren’t taking into account the value of a worker’s knowledge or their ability to use such knowledge.

Though Drucker’s thoughts were a glimpse into the future, an article at Knowledge@Wharton titled, Productivity in the Modern Office: A Matter of Impact, said this about our ability to implement them:

More than 50 years after management guru Peter Drucker first wrote about the difficulty of defining and measuring the productivity of knowledge workers, management experts say many companies still do a poor job of it. ‘In general, organizations have not truly come to grips with how to think about productivity in a knowledge economy, let alone how best to manage it,’ says Jordan Cohen, a productivity expert with PA Consulting Group.”

With economic inequality getting worse in so many parts of the world, with the new new “knowledge work” where change is the new normal, and with modern teams increasingly valuing employees holistically, it’s time to let go of our antiquated mindsets and metaphors. We’ve entered a new era. In McGrath’s words:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.”

Management in the era of empathy

When I asked Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, his thoughts on the intersection of management and empathy, he said: 

Empathy in the modern workplace is not just being able to see things from another’s perspective—it’s the cornerstone of good teamwork, smart leadership and innovative design. With increasing automation, the real comparative advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships, both inside and outside firms—and that means empathy will count more than ever. Let’s forget recruiting employees simply on the basis of their professional qualifications or their Myers-Briggs scores: give them an empathy test and fill your organization with emotional intelligence.”

Krznaric’s words got me thinking….

The history books during my time in school (may it not be so today!) taught the industrial revolution primarily through the lens of Henry Ford’s perceived genius and subsequent impact. But perhaps the truer story, the truer force of impact, is that while Mr. Ford certainly wielded tremendous influence, the millions of courageous workers who put their lives on the line to protest for safe working conditions and fair wages carved history far more than a single man ever could.

They fought and died for their own rights, but it was their collective buzz and wanting to better the conditions for future workers that makes me realize that empathy was their torch. It’s a torch I saw burning in the eyes of the protesting Bangladesh factory workers I met a few years ago, and it’s a torch that should continue to guide management professionals whether they are professors teaching the next generation or are deep in the world of business.

In a variety of sectors, empathy is often viewed as a “soft skill”; it’s perceived as that unnecessary attribute just as likely to be a weakness as a stength. But there is perhaps no greater attribute for a “third era of management” professional to have than empathy.

The alternative means stale imagery trying to make sense of new realities. It means companies failing to reach their goals because they didn’t tap their own or their employee’s empathic resources. It means damaged or underdeveloped employee relationships. It means talent walking out the door. It means accepting the status quo of not seeing our own privilege and therefore the full extent of inequality. In a recent article titled, Is empathy the hidden motor of human history, Krznaric put it this way:

…empathy and reason typically operate in conjunction to create the foundations of human rights and social justice. They are not polar opposites but are in fact the best of friends, a democratic double act. Like knife and fork, ball and socket, Fred and Ginger, they work best when they work together… The task we face is to create a generational shift, rebalancing the focus on individualist values with a greater emphasis on collective values.”

We can either be part of that shift, or get swept away by holding onto an unstable foundation from a bygone era.

Has management entered a new era of empathy? How does empathy play a role in your company’s management style or policies?


About the featured photo:

Michael Summers’ “Love Bots” is our feature painting this week. Artist statement: “Each painting hints at a story of self-realization and gently pokes fun at our pre-conceived notions of reality and the extraordinary. By taking everyday objects and imagery and putting them in a new context, I encourage people to take another look at the world around them… I can create art for myself, but it is simply incomplete until I can make someone else happy in the process. Please, feel welcome, and enjoy!”

-Carrot photo: Boardman Robinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

-Special thanks to Michael Doran for alerting me to the HBR article precisely when I needed it.

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