Issue #5: 'self'

In pursuit of selflessness

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by Ros Arnold on July 7, 2014

Empathy and greed in the context of the workplace might seem too disparate to be discussed in tandem. One might seem too idealistic and the other too self-serving to share a discussion platform. Yet each is likely to be well in evidence in the micro-societies of workplaces – greed most noticeably, if headlines in recent times are any indication. It seems that no outrageously self-serving justification in relation to work-related expenses is beyond the imagination of some public and corporate figures.

Arguably, empathy and greed sit at polar opposites on a scale of values, the latter consuming resources in real terms and in terms of the management controls which have to be put in place and monitored to safeguard resources, the former contributing in discernible but often subtle ways to the social capital of a workplace. Put simply, empathy generates resources, greed consumes them. More importantly, empathy generates high-level social functioning and cohesion, and greed becomes self-consuming and ultimately self-annihilating.

Greed needs no elaboration, but what is empathy? Empathy is an act of mindful, heartfelt imagination, a disposition that enables us to work from our own perceptions, feelings and worldview to make considered judgements about appropriate ways to act towards others. It is a more sophisticated response to situations than sympathy, though sympathy might guide empathy in part. Empathy calls on a dynamic between feeling and thinking wherein each cognitive and affective response influences decisions about responses and actions. While there might be psychic tension between each aspect in the process of reaching a considered decision, such tensions can be productive as a check on both emotional impulses and heart-less rationality.

Empathy requires sophisticated self-understanding and an ability to hypothesise the possible outcomes of decisions. The driving force of an empathic disposition is a values system within which positive personal relationships are highly prized for their capacity to be mutually enriching. Where such relationships are mutually enriching they tend to generate trust, commitment and goodwill; human qualities that play an important role in sustaining civil societies with all its social, relational and commercial interests.

There is a hypothetical cost involved for individuals who commit to an empathic disposition. They need to believe that it is worth quelling impulses fuelled by self-interest or notions of entitlement or easy gratification in favour of higher-order gains such as enriching relationships, harmony, just outcomes and constructive social processes. Whether or not such a disposition is altruistic probably depends on how tightly or loosely bound is the definition of altruism. A loosely bound definition allows for some measure of intrinsic personal return or satisfaction provided the greater good is also clearly served.

The nature of that intrinsic return might well derive from a deeply embedded personal value system attuned to seeking, recognising and experiencing the high-order internal affirmation of acting with integrity. That is, such individuals seek congruence between their actions, the outcomes and what they think matters in life. They forego immediate and self-serving outcomes, and possibly the approval or understanding of others, in their quest to act with integrity. To some such idealism might seem alien to human nature. To others, aspirations to evolve beyond meeting basic survival needs is a worthwhile personal ambition. Such persons tend to seek personal relationships, work and life experiences that enable them to evolve as autonomous, service-orientated contributors to a greater good.

The picture drawn here of empathic individuals could suggest they are paragons of virtue with unrealistic motivations beyond emulation. Needless to say, no one can act empathically and without regard to personal needs and drives every waking moment of the day. Balance, proportion, self-acceptance along with finely-tuned realism play their part in sustaining idealism lest it burn out its acolytes. An important quality of an empathic disposition is that it seeks to understand rather than to judge. Need-less to say, actions or outcomes that harm others cannot be condoned, even if the motivations behind them might be empathically understood. Holding this apparent ambiguity in comfortable tension is part of an empathic disposition.

In that context, how does a consideration of greed offer anything to a conversation about empathy? When forced to acknowledge the ruthlessness of his vile daughters, Goneril and Regan, King Lear in Shakespeare’s eponymous play admonished them for questioning his motivation in wanting to retain authority over his hundred knights after he had relinquished his crown and his power.

O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.

(King Lear, Act 11, Scene iv.)

What do we need to be fully human, above our basest needs? When is enough truly enough? Those driven by greed at any cost might well rationalise their acquisitive drive as essential to their well-being, image, self-esteem and personal comfort. A moment’s reflection, such that even Lear could muster in the depths of psychic pain (maybe because of such depths), begs an existential question that defies easy logic. But it doesn’t defy contemplation. Who is to determine the fitness of our needs, wants, desires? Can excessive consumption of material and non-material resources ever be justified?

As dynamic micro-societies within which most human needs, desires and wants can play out, there is undoubtedly a need within the workplace to identify and enshrine those values that sustain rather than consume human and material resources.

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