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An Empathetic Workforce Doesn’t Just Feel Good. It Works Well.

“As companies seek to identify, hire and train the next generation of leaders for the digital age, they are faced with a host of transformative changes that are no longer just on the horizon,” says George Brooks, EY Americas Leader, People Advisory Services.

Instead, he says, “these changes have already moved in, bringing with them a profound impact on where, how, and why people work, innovate, engage, and produce.” Companies are finding that employees both want and expect the same seamless digital experience at work that they get at home. They’re looking for purpose as a critical work experience. They’re expecting automation not to replace their jobs but to free them up for creative thinking and social interaction.

“Business models are changing,” says Brooks, “they’re more team-based and less hierarchical. And that teaming is what’s driving innovation.” However, he cautions, many of the constructs with which companies look at employee needs “are still out of the 1980s.”

“Business models are changing. They’re more team-based and less hierarchical. And that teaming is what’s driving innovation.”

Key to teaming, talent engagement, and, in fact, the business agenda today, says Brooks, is empathy—especially in an era that is increasingly automated. But empathy, Brooks suggests, is missing in many Millennials. The irony in this, Brooks notes, is that Millennials can be seen as excelling at what could be called “macro-empathy” at the same time that they’re weak at “micro-empathy.” So, while these new workers may have trouble moving past what Brooks calls “the me society,” they’re increasingly insistent that the companies for which they work be purpose-driven, “merging their corporate agenda with a broader social mandate.”

Citing a number of studies that have demonstrated a rapid decline in empathy traits in college students, Brooks suggests that a key for companies is to build on Millennials’ strong macro-empathy traits by developing their micro-empathy instincts, through both coaching and the implementation of learning techniques. This, he says, would end up strengthening the part of the brain that has been stymied and would enable Millennials to become more engaged, productive team members, with technology used to free up creative thinking and social interaction, rather than impede it. The point, says Brooks, is to “increase individual mindfulness and change mindsets to better respond to external stimuli.”

For CEOs, he adds, the workplace today—not just in the future—is “at a critical juncture.” With such forces as “techno-stress, digital dementia, and lack of empathy” having taken their toll, the challenge is to reverse the trends, harness both empathy and technology, and move forward into a more innovative tomorrow, today.


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