Thursday, January 21, 2021

How Empathy Helps Bridge Generational Differences

How Empathy Helps Bridge Generational Differences

CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.

People don’t always understand each other or work the same ways. They communicate differently, they have different work habits, they prioritize different things, they have different ideas of what constitutes a job well done, or even what the purpose of a job is in the first place. These kinds of culture and value clashes have been in the workplace forever. But for a long time, they were often suppressed by organizations that forced a one size fits all culture. But with the growing realization that these differences can fuel business growth, not just slow it down through friction, they were emerging more and more, and all that demands a different type of leader.

One clear way in which these clashes are playing out in the workplace comes along the generational divide. Managers who grew up in a more rigid work environment are now leading millennials and others who did not. Today’s author says that empathy is one of the most important tools managers can have to better understand other generations in the workplace.

Mimi Nicklin is an ad agency executive and the author of the book “Softening the Edge: Empathy: How Humanity’s Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing the World.”s Mimi, thanks for joining us.

MIMI NICKLIN: Thank you so much for having me.

CURT NICKISCH: So we’re going to talk about generational gaps. I want to place you in a generation. What generation are you?

MIMI NICKLIN: I am firmly in the middle of the millennial generation.

CURT NICKISCH: Growing up, what was your picture of work and what the workplace was like?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think I’m one of those rare people that always knew that I wanted to work in advertising, and there aren’t many of us. Most people fall into advertising. I had quite a clear plan from a young age.

CURT NICKISCH: And your dad was in advertising, right? He was a big wig.

MIMI NICKLIN: Yeah, he was definitely, if you have ever watched Mad Men, he very much lived that era of advertising. So I think I grew up, well, I think I grew up thinking it was going to be really fun, which of course sometimes it is, but certainly I don’t think I had any idea how cutthroat advertising could be. And of course you only learn with experience how creative people respond to the creative industries and the type of emotional intelligence, but also emotional context that comes with creating creative product, whether you’re in advertising or you’re an artist. There’s a lot of heart and soul that goes into creative delivery of work.

CURT NICKISCH: Did you see faults in how leaders ran those organizations? I mean, I just wonder if you chafed at leadership of some of the firms that you were at.

MIMI NICKLIN: I don’t think I ever did at the time. I think now the more I study empathy, the more I study emotional intelligence in the workplace and its impact on mental health and emotional wellness, I think now I can look back on things, and perhaps pick a little bit more fault and with some of the things that went on from a leadership point of view at the time.

But I think when you’re very young and particularly in those days, you just accepted it as it were. I think now, more and more, employees are having a voice and a really analyzing and picking apart how leaders lead. As I said, I think at the time I just accepted it at face value, to be honest.

CURT NICKISCH: I mean, you’re hinting there at this generation gap a little bit. It seems like nowadays you can’t even search the word millennial, which is a truly global generational shift or Gen Z without getting all kinds of articles of the things that young people are demanding at work. What’s your read then on what’s really going on?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think that the millennials tend to get quite a bad rap about what they’re demanding at work, but of course they also do a phenomenal amount of innovation and creative thinking and delivery of change. I mean, ironically, it was the millennials that coined the term work-life balance that gave us that, that gave us that new perspective that probably we shouldn’t be working 24/7.

CURT NICKISCH: Did they? I mean, that seems like that’s a term that’s been around for a while.

MIMI NICKLIN: Yeah. It is a term that’s been around for a while, but if you think the millennials now go up to people in their early forties when they were in their early twenties, we’re talking around about 20 years ago. So they definitely were a huge part of that shift. The generation before them were much more willing to see work as a way of life. It was this generation that started to change that and say, “Hang on a minute, there’s got to be more to life than just work.”

CURT NICKISCH: So as a leader, how do you get past the assumptions about millennials, that they’re snowflakes or just want to do whatever they want?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think the answer really lies in just making sure that you understand where some of that commentary or feedback or thinking is coming from. And the reality is, life is never going to be the same for every generation because their context isn’t the same, the mediums they’ve grown up with, the environment they’ve grown up with. So really to me, it is very much about understanding. Just because the millennials, for example, and soon to be their younger counterparts, have a different way of doing the things that we did, does that make them wrong and us right, or that older generation right? Probably not. It’s just how the world is changing. And there’s always a middle ground, if you can understand the context from which that feedback is coming.

CURT NICKISCH: I want to dig in to this idea then of empathy, but maybe let’s start with your definition of it.

MIMI NICKLIN: Absolutely. Empathy for me is about perspective taking, seeing the world through the eyes of someone else, seeing their context. As I mentioned earlier, understanding where they’re coming from, why are they saying that? Why are they saying it in that tone? Why are they responding in that way? So it’s about perspective taking. And I think in the corporate world, it’s very much your dataset. It is your data to enabling better decision-making within your organization or even your sales teams, your innovation pipeline. Empathy is fundamentally your ability to see the world as somebody else does.

CURT NICKISCH: When it comes to your own workers, and leaders embracing empathy to understand them. What is the argument for that, rather than expecting workers to adapt to the organizational culture that’s been around maybe for decades?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think it’s a really interesting question, Curt. The reality is that having an empathetic culture and an empathetic approach from the leadership team doesn’t mean that that overrides culture or behaviors or beliefs that have been in place, often for many decades. What empathy in a leadership or in a leader or from a leadership point of view really asks of us, is to understand, to ask opinions, to listen to those people that are working within that culture.

Now, of course there are some organizations which are going to really struggle to adapt to any level of empathetic culture, particularly any organization that has a very autocratic system, a very vertical system. They’re going to have to work much harder to make that shift into a listening culture. But as we touched on earlier, those millennials out there are not going to be patient, I think, for much longer.

CURT NICKISCH: And so on the flip side of things, what do you say to those younger workers? I know that when I was younger, it was easy to criticize bosses or colleagues for doing something that I thought was not a good long-term decision for the business.

With time, you learn that when people move into management, for better or for worse, they’re just driven by different incentives. And it’s more understandable why leaders make the decisions that they do. For somebody who’s a younger worker listening to this, what’s your advice to them when they come up against these differences?

MIMI NICKLIN: Look, I think if you are in an organization where there really is no intention or inclination to have an empathetic approach to business, to team working, to communication, that’s a decision eventually you’re going to have to make, because it’s unlikely in, as I said, in some organizations, that shift is unlikely to happen very quickly or anytime soon.

Having said that, empathy is a very natural human skill set. It’s a skill we’re all born with. And therefore, what that means is that if you are currently in a middle management role, soon to be a senior role, you can set a lot of that pace for that change. Because in the people around you, with your clients and your teams, if you empathize with people, they will naturally begin to empathize back.

CURT NICKISCH: The title of your book calls this humanity’s oldest leadership trait, explain that?

MIMI NICKLIN: From an evolutionary point of view, as human beings, we know that we work better together. And that’s really what the role of empathy is. It’s both to protect our success as a group and as individuals. There’s a story that I read while I was doing the research for my book, and it was about a class of students in the United States, I can’t remember the university. The lecturer was talking about empathy, and one of the students asked her and said, “Well, how do you know that people were empathizing all those years ago?” And she said, “Because of healed femur bones.” And the students said, “What do you mean, because of healed femur bones?”

And this teacher, this lecturer went on to explain that the femur bone in the human body takes an extremely long time to heal, really, I think six or eight weeks. So she said that when they found bodies skeletons, I should say, that showed that there had been a broken femur, but that it had healed, and that person had recovered from that, they knew that people were working for mutual coexistence, for mutual success. Because in order for that person to have survived, the people around him or her would have had to rally together to keep him alive, because he wouldn’t have been able to hunt or fend for himself or any of those things whilst that bone was being healed. And they attribute that to some of the very earliest signs of empathy as a natural ability that we’ve always known.

But in any environment where you see really solid teamwork, amongst people that have worked together for mutual gain, without a doubt, empathy’s at work.

CURT NICKISCH: You work in Dubai now, you’ve worked many different places around the world. How do you see empathy playing out differently in different places?

MIMI NICKLIN: I love that question, Curt. And it’s one that interestingly, having not been asked that question at all, probably, for the last six months that suddenly people are asking me relatively frequently. So the conversation is changing. There is no data yet that unifies us geographically from an empathy audit point of view. But what I can tell you from my own experience in all of these countries I’ve lived in and around the world, studying human behavior as it were, is that the difference between collectivist societies, so many parts of Asia, Africa and some parts of the Middle East as well, versus the more individualistic societies, so the United States, the UK, Europe, Canada, what we would probably call them more developed countries. You definitely can see a differentiation between the collectivist and individualistic societies.


Those collectivist societies certainly do show much more natural empathy, much more natural understanding of each other. They’re far more comfortable with it. And of course, in some of our very developed cities now, we see up to 40% of people in those cities living alone. And when you spend the majority of your life on your own, living alone, commuting to work, doing your job, and going home alone again, and perhaps hiding behind your laptop or your phone, on social media the rest of the time, it’s quite easy to almost forget how to use this skill.

CURT NICKISCH: And you mentioned the pandemic earlier, how has COVID affected this?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think like everything else human on our planet today, I mean, it’s impacted it in so many different ways. Maybe I’ll start with just simply the awareness and reality of empathy, which is that there’s definitely been a huge increase in the understanding of what empathy is, and why we perhaps might need it and need more of it.

In terms of us using it as a behavior trait, I think it’s probably taken one step forward and sometimes three steps back. I think in the heart of the first lockdown, we saw very high amounts of empathy, lots of real understanding and connectivity between neighborhoods that perhaps hadn’t done that for many years. But human beings don’t like change very much and they tend to default back to habitual behavior relatively quickly. And I think we’ve also seen the slightly negative side of that where people have now starting to get back into old routines, and perhaps just going back into that very individualistic path.

What we know is there are two great enemies to empathy. One of them is high stress and the other is low time. So when we’re in environments where there’s very high stress and very low time, which of course is much of our corporate lives, we see empathy suffer.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I want to talk about how you try to build that into your team or your organization, just as an individual leader. How do you build in the time for empathy? How do you build in the listening? What have you encountered that works? What are some of your success stories? What do you like to see when you’re in an organization?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think it’s really interesting that you mentioned there, how do you make the time to embed empathy into your organization? I think that’s interesting because of two things. Number one, you’re absolutely accurate that in order to increase empathy, you do have to increase the time you commit to it. Because of course, in order to understand people, you have to be curious, and in order to be curious, you have to ask questions, and that takes time. And I think many leaders are habitually short on time, and don’t often make the time to ask questions and hear the answers.

CURT NICKISCH: Is that more fun, just to make judgments about people and jump to conclusions? I mean, it’s just so much more fun and easier.

MIMI NICKLIN: Oh, perhaps. Perhaps for some, that’s exactly what it is. I think for others, I think I used the word habitual, I think it’s just a pattern. And interestingly, there’s data out there that shows that as we go up the power hierarchy, so as people get more senior in organizations, we also see empathy dropping. Interesting that the more people get used to the sound of their own voice, of being the key decision maker in a room or in an organization, we actually see them become less good at empathizing with others. So you do have to make a bit more time.

On the other hand, really, in order to create a more empathetic organization, you’re just one tiny step away from doing it, and that’s simply the decision to do so. Because of the way that our brains are made up, the neuro-plasticity of our brains, simply by making the decision to activate your empathy, to use that muscle, as it were, more often, you will do so, because that’s how the brain works. You send the instruction, as we said earlier, it’s a skill set you have, it’s simply a matter of choosing to use it. And of course, like any skill, the more you choose to use it, the easier that becomes. Making the time to really ask people, “Why are you doing that?” “How did you come to that conclusion?” “What was it that led you to that?” These are the types of questions that open people up to giving you insight.

And if you recall, at the beginning, I was talking about empathy being your dataset. So I would say, one of the key steps to becoming a more empathetic organization is simply to be far more curious about your teams, about their decisions, about your clients and their decisions. But of course, listening to the answers is absolutely integral, and being authentic in that is also really important as people, as humans, we’re incredibly good at sniffing out a fake.

CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. I learned that as a reporter, that there is really no question you cannot ask as long as the person you’re asking believes that you care about them. Tell me about a time when you asked a question, maybe of somebody from a younger generation, that really unlocked a realization for you.

MIMI NICKLIN: I have a lot of very young, so definitely Generation Zs in my team. They’re 21 years old, so they’re really at the beginning of their careers. And I was talking about internships with my team and what we should do and how we might improve our internship program, obviously with empathy at the heart. How can we create programs that really work for the people that want to do them as well as obviously the business and what we need to get out of them?

And I asked this young man, he was very new in my team. In fact, he barely spoke any English at the time. And I asked him, “What would have all your friends done?” “Of all your friends,” and they’ve all recently graduated, “How are they choosing their internships, and what are they looking for in internships?” And he looked at me and he said, “Well, none of them are doing internships.” And I said, “Well, why not?” And he got a bit nervous and I said, “No, it’s okay, speak your mind.” And he said, “Well, because they don’t think you can teach them anything.” I said, “Oh, well that’s nice.”

But we went on to discuss that, and what he meant was that his friends, they don’t think that we know how to adapt to them. They don’t think that we understand what they want, and that for many of them, they just think they need to be entrepreneurs, that they think they have to do it themselves. I mean, I’m sure there’s a little bit of overconfidence in there as well, that they can do it all on their own, better than we can. But at the same time, there was, to your point, a real insight in there for me, which was that we’re doing this all wrong. If we are not inspiring the next generation of talent to want to come into our organizations, and to trust us that we’re able to empathize with them, we’re able to understand their reality and help them grow, and help them start their careers, then we’re really losing before we even begin.

CURT NICKISCH: Is there a company out there or a product that you’ve seen where you just thought to yourself, “Wow. That company really nailed empathy on the head there.”

MIMI NICKLIN: I think there is a few, for sure. I think Airbnb comes to mind and I know there was lots of discussion around their behavior during the pandemic and things they did right, and perhaps things that they did or could have done slightly differently. But when I followed Airbnb in the last few years, I think both from a employee point of view, and of course, I only know what I read in the media, but they seem to be a very understanding organization that really puts their people and their careers and their goals first, and fundamentally that’s helping them with that culture, and I think there’s many young people who do want to work with them because of it.

But equally, when you look at their marketing and their advertising, they do show an extremely clear understanding of the product they’ve created, or the service that they’ve created, a really strong sense of empathy for both the people that are traveling and the people that have homes that they’re renting out.

So yeah, off the top of my head, I think they’re a brand that seems to show really strong empathy. And actually, now that I’m talking, not specifically as the whole brand, but as a piece of marketing, the new Amazon Christmas campaign, which has a ballerina in it. And it’s all about this young ballerina whose show gets canceled and it’s to the soundtrack The Show Must Go On. Beautiful, beautiful piece of film. So I recommend everybody looks at it. That one, for me, just shows the most phenomenal empathy for the human reality right now. There’s nothing stereotypical or surface level in there. It is the most fantastic storytelling, that shows that certainly in this instance, in this particular ad, the brand had deep empathy for what our people are going through and how they’re ending their years, after the year that has been 2020.

CURT NICKISCH: What’s the one thing you want listeners to walk away remembering when it comes to empathy and understanding other generations? What’s the thing that people get wrong that you’d like to correct here?

MIMI NICKLIN: I think it’s less about correcting and more hopefully about just inspiring or encouraging people to really consider the phrase that we’re all far more alike than we are different. I think for me, that is the one thing that really drives so much of why we have an empathy deficit, this deficit that President Obama actually coined back in 2006. So if I had to say one thing, it would be that, to really consider the fact that we’re just humans, all of us. It doesn’t matter what language, context, culture that you’ve grown up in or been surrounded by. At the end of the day, we all want to be seen and heard, and we all do better when we’re seen and heard.

CURT NICKISCH: Well Mimi, thanks so much for joining the show and helping us understand understanding a bit more. It’s been great to have you.

MIMI NICKLIN: Thank you so much for having me. I have absolutely relished the opportunity to talk about it, and I had a fantastic conversation. So thank you very much.

CURT NICKISCH: That’s Mimi Nicklin. She’s an ad agency executive and the author of the book Softening the Edge: Empathy: How Humanity’s Oldest Leadership Trait is Changing the World.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.

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