Respect and Dignity at Work

Posted on 14th March 2017


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this essay I direct your attention to a recent blog post by Tim Leberecht in ‘Psychology Today’. Leberecht uses the occasion of actress Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes to offer insights on the social role of empathy in the workplace, and subtly reminds us to be on guard against bullying and other abuses of power at work.

The Social Importance of Workplace Empathy

Streep made headlines recently with her speech upon accepting a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, the awards presented by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association for excellence in film and television. There was immediate controversy over her implied criticism of US president-elect Donald Trump, but the aspect of her speech I would like to focus on is her emphasis on the importance of empathy, and the consequent responsibilities of those in positions of power: “This instinct to humiliate, when it is modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life, because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing. Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others we all lose.

In his column Leberecht builds on Streep’s words with a timely reminder of empathy’s socializing role in the workplace: “These words (of Streep’s) apply to business leaders in all kinds of corporate settings as well. When it comes to empathy, the workplace has a particular responsibility since most of us spend the majority of our waking hours there. Work serves as the most important catalyst for forming community, establishing a social contract, and integrating individuals into society.” Sometimes we tend to overlook this: we can become so focused on ‘the work’ that we forget the deep social importance of being with people at work and feeling a kinship with them… or not. Some workplaces can be very difficult environments, as some of you may know.

In the same article Leberecht eloquently reminds us of the moral facet of empathy, and how it underpins civilized behavior: “Empathy, the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective, is the link between ourselves and ‘the other’ and as such is a critical concept for any functioning peaceful human society. It serves as the prerequisite of moral imagination and judgment; only if we are capable of accepting the other as a being with feelings do we feel compelled to act morally. We don’t mind kicking a table, but we do refrain from – or at least feel a moral dilemma – when kicking a dog.”

An unpleasant example, but one that makes a profound point: empathy, and the moral restraint it provides, is one of the few elements that hold our fragile human society together. We cannot afford to abandon it.

Good luck, and until next time…