This week, the World Wildlife Foundation released its Living Planet Index Report. It made for disturbing reading.
Humanity, for all its technical ingenuity, appears culpable in the destruction of nearly 60% of vertebrate animal species since 1970. Mass extinction on that scale doesn’t end well for humanity.
The fact that the Living Planet Index is retrospective makes much of the science irrefutable. Yet, to date, it has failed to generate any significant sign of public concern, let alone political action. It begs the question, why?
Part of the reason, of course, relates to the polarisation of the environmental debate. Policy decisions specific to climate change have hardened and measured discourse appears increasingly isolated from the mainstream.
But, there’s a more fundamental issue at play here that goes way beyond the environmental stand-off. And, it relates to the rate of technical, social and cultural change that surrounds us.
The extent and reach of accelerated change has created a middle-ground of society in which apathy has become the new normal. There’s a sense that offering a point of view about anything – of which the environment is just one of a multitude of significant issues – can generate such an adverse and public reaction that, for some, it’s simply not worth the effort.
Elsewhere, the response to a more volatile and, sometimes, hostile society is driving a greater level of disconnection between people and the traditional institutions on which they used to rely. Be it the church, family or government, people are simply switching off and searching for a safer place for discourse and interaction.
Herein lies the real opportunity for brands.
For many organisations, the rapid emergence of non-traditional competitors and the accelerated shift that technology has provoked in consumer behaviour has had a profound effect on their brand position. They know they’re operating in a disrupted market. But, they know too that the consequence of that disruption is a disorientated society grappling with the pace of change.
For progressive brands, the pace of change has become visceral. Traditional models of operational design are being discarded as organisations turn to agility-based structures that increasingly accommodate the flow of ideas and accountability across the business. Innovation has become democratised as brands search for competitive advantage.
But, innovation at this level does not flourish unless organisations truly understand the context of their employees and their relationship to the changes going on around them. Agility modelling only works when empathy comes first. Intimacy is everything.
Globally, brands spend billions on external marketing programs, better understanding consumer need and building campaigns that meet that need. However, few give equal consideration to the commercial value of more sustained and effective engagement with their own employees. It’s a scenario that can often lead to a misalignment between the employee experience and market-facing brand position. That, in turn, manifests itself in greater distrust. Too quickly, prospective employee advocates become brand detractors.
It’s a missed opportunity on many levels and one that brands have to address. As organisations brace themselves for the accelerated complexity of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, so they must also harness an Era of Empathy that puts employee insight first and front-line innovation second. Just as consumer insight drives commercial sales, so employee engagement sees innovation soar.
A key part of the empathy-push is the way in which organisations connect brand values with employee engagement strategies. A stated purpose and vision that is modelled across all elements of the organisation has long been recognised as a priority.
And yet, until recently, the push for demonstrable empathy has not got much traction within the boardrooms or policy departments of organisations and governments. Perhaps because it’s been seen as a fluffy intangible – ‘all hugs and no action’ as some might call it. But, that’s now changing – as it should.
Giving employees clarity on the direction of an organisation and their role within it has always been important. But, those in the workforce today have greater cause to connect with it as their relationship with the organisation changes on account of their disconnection from other, more traditional institutions. Empathy is a key organisational behaviour that drives that connection.
The Era of Empathy is here.
Ian Rumsby is Chairman, Weber Shandwick Australia and Chair Strategy, Asia Pacific.
He leads Weber Shandwick’s new United Minds consultancy across Asia Pacific, which helps to drive genuine cultural change within organisations – building strong, empathetic relationships with employees.