Skip to main content

Kindness + Business

Empathy: Part Of The New Operating System For Our Modern World

Split Sadness

by Darlene M. Damm

Empathy has been in the news a lot recently. It has been highlighted as an antidote to school bullying and gun and gender violence, and it has become popular in the business community as a part of user-centered design. More and more, empathy is being recognized as a skill that people need to develop to better shape how society will function in the future.

In the industrial era, we lived in a world hallmarked by hierarchies and strict boundaries around companies, organizations, communities, and nations. Today, we are heading into a globalized, networked, transparent world of fast change, where there are many voices at the table, all speaking at the same time—all the time.

While our world should celebrate the democratization that is happening around us—and that has been centuries in the making—we also need to figure out how to peacefully coexist and work together to address the needs and perspectives of a growing number of players, whether that be in the workplace or on the Internet. In a world without hierarchical top-down leadership and clear rules, it is increasingly becoming the responsibility of individuals to solve their own problems and get along with others.

In short, we need a new operating system for this new world, one with empathy at its core. We know this because we can see that major companies and institutions have already began to adopt post-industrial business strategies that incorporate empathy. Take, for example, Facebook, a quintessential 21st century company that’s ahead of the curve.

When Facebook first launched, its policy was to allow users to report problems, bullying or abuse to Facebook staff. With over one billion users, and an exponentially growing number of interactions, Facebook took a closer look at the problems people were reporting and found they were not so much violations of policies, but rather miscommunications and misunderstandings between members. Facebook responded by investing in teaching its community to be more empathetic, instead of leaving everyone to fend for themselves. How? By coding empathy into its social network, changing the way users interacted online.

Today, if a user has a problem—for example, not liking a photo that someone posted of them—instead of reporting it to headquarters as a complaint, they are given the option of sharing how the photo made them feel with the person who posted it: “This photo made me feel embarrassed,” or “This photo made me feel sad.” According to Facebook engineer Arturo Bejar, who leads their empathy work with guidance from research institutes focusing on social-emotional learning, what has been surprising is the popular response. When people received such a message, their response rate increased dramatically with them either removing the photo or entering into a dialogue with the person that helped resolve the situation in a positive way, without top-down intervention. Facebook also hosts an annual Compassion Research Day at Facebook to analyze their findings.

In a world of complex large networks, it makes sense to help people develop empathy and make it easy for them to use it in their daily interactions with one another. This is something that many online public forums may want to heed. Venture capitalist Bill Draper recently remarked at the 2013 Intersection event that empathy is one of the most important skills that he looks for in the business entrepreneurs in which he invests. Google, another networked company, encourages compassion and empathy among employees through their “Search Inside Yourself” program, developed by Chade-Meng Tan.

What is interesting is that empathy is not only a skill necessary for getting along with others in a complex, fast-paced world, but it is also a skill that is essential for innovation and collaboration—two things that are in high demand. At Ashoka, we identified empathy as one of the key characteristics possessed by almost all of our more than 3,000 Ashoka Fellows operating in 70 countries around the world. It was through empathy—seeing the world from multiple perspectives—that many were able to generate creative solutions to social problems as well as mobilize diverse groups of stakeholders and teams to join in and help make that solution a reality.

We know the way forward. The question now is how quickly can we all get there?

Darlene M. Damm (@darlenedamm) has worked with Ashoka, the Asia Society and Volunteers in Asia. She’s the founder of DIYRockets and a co-founder of Matternet, aeronautics and aerospace companies designed to launch new industries to benefit the world.


←  Go back                                                  Next page