Do organizations suppress our empathy?

Economist and social commentator Jeremy Rifkin is one of today’s most wide-ranging and visionary thinkers, having written important works on the future of work, the European Union, and — now — the role of empathy in shaping modern society. In The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (2009), he lays out the case for a global future shaped by qualities of empathy.

Soft wired for empathy

Okay, I confess: I haven’t found the time to read Rifkin’s thick tome. Fortunately, however, I was alerted to a delightful 10-minute animated version:

According to Rifkin, cutting-edge neuropsychological research indicates that “we are soft wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves” (2:25 of tape). In addition, we are “soft wired for sociability, attachment, affection, [and] companionship” (4:57). Our sense of empathy “is grounded in the acknowledgment of death and the celebration of life” (4:50 of video).

Bystander abandonment

If this is the case, then why do so many people abandon or run from others who are being bullied, harassed, or otherwise mistreated?

Let’s say an individual is bullied at school or at work.  All too often, friends and associates dive for cover, leaving the target standing alone (figuratively and sometimes literally). That sense of abandonment only heightens the stress and isolation of the situation.

We should be rushing to the target’s side, yes? What happens to cause an almost opposite reaction? The easy answer, not wholly incorrect, is that we fear similar mistreatment or retaliation. However, there’s more to it. Something has conditioned us to expect those possibilities.

Cultures of fear

That conditioning mechanism may be the culture of institutions that teach us to abandon the target, lest we, too, become one of them. And sadly, it’s not just horrific, worst-case settings such as concentration camps that create and embrace cultures of fear. Bad schools and workplaces do too.

In the case of schools, kids learn very early that targets of bullying are outcasts. Heaven forbid that we risk our social standing or sense of security to help someone being picked on, even if those whose approval we seek happen to be mean-spirited jerks. Not infrequently, the schools themselves fail to take assertive action to prevent or stop bullying, especially if the latter situation involves popular kids being the aggressors.

Fast-forward to the workplace: A feared boss, or perhaps a popular co-worker, bullies another employee. Once again, the target is abandoned by colleagues and the employer alike. Cycles of abuse and abandonment repeat themselves among adults.

Time to re-wire?

Watching that 10-minute video, one is filled with a sense of hope about the possible triumph of our better natures. But if the history of bullying in schools and workplaces is any indication, it won’t be easy to reach that higher place. It behooves us to keep pushing forward, so that someday we’ll get there.


Hat tip to writer R. Jeffreys for the Rifkin video link.

5 responses

  1. As a nurse consultant working to create positive workplaces, I see this as a critical component for addressing horizontal and vertical violence. We will provide safer, cheaper care when we are all accountable for respectful behavior.

    I learned about ‘no innocent bystanders’ while researching school systems’ work on anti-bullying and apply to healthcare in this brief article.

  2. In our work, I can’t think of one single emotion (besides patience) that is as important to emphasize than empathy. In an increasingly competitive, fear-based corporate culture, empathy is a powerful antidote. And from neuroscience we understanding that as the brain is filtering for threats or rewards – empathy lights up the reward regions.
    Unfortunately we find that most of our corporate audiences essentially don’t understand what empathy is. They think it’s sympathy or pity. And even those who are open to considering it’s role, question whether “they have the time” for it.
    Thanks for this post (we’ve done 3 on empathy so far) and raising awareness about the impact and practicality of empathy. The video is a must-see (and as one who is inching through the Rifkin book) it is worth the read.

    • Louise, what does it say when most of your corporate audiences don’t even get the concept? Yikers, that’s disturbing…but then again, maybe not so surprising at all.

      One of the reasons why I advocate for legal reform re bullying at work is because so many employers act only when threatened with litigation. It’s a shame that whatever empathic instincts they had have been thoroughly drummed out of their being.

  3. I recently did a search for support groups for targets of bullies. I was shocked and saddened that the vast majority of these are outside of the USA. Could anyone who can PLEASE help to improve this?

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