The 'Other Side' of ICT: Less Empathy – Part 2

Posted on 13th December 2016


Welcome to the Business Empathy Forum and thank you for your visit. In this post I would like to continue discussing possible drawbacks of over-reliance upon ICT, particularly in terms of lost empathy and business relationships. In part 1 I touched on the reduction of personal contact, feelings of isolation, changes in workplace dynamics, and fewer opportunities for the exchange of ideas, brainstorming, and team building. Here are several more issues…

The Price We Pay for Connectivity, Part 2

‘De-skilling’ and Misinterpretation
Another concern is the gradual erosion of social skills. Some experts argue that automation in the name of efficiency may actually ‘de-skill’ us socially, through sheer lack of practice. The basic argument: the search for speed and efficiency has led to a drastic reduction in the need for human interaction to accomplish many tasks. (Think of ATMs, booking hotels through websites, and shopping via Amazon). Over time, people become more comfortable interacting with machines than they are interacting with one another. Social media may also play a role, as reliance on the emotional distance of technology begins to atrophy our socializing and coping muscles in the workplace.

An additional challenge in virtual communication is the lack of visual and verbal cues. The lack of these subtle signals may lead to faulty assumptions, confusion, and even conflict. Think about it: in face-to-face communication we interpret the non-verbal cues and tone of voice of the other person. We can still draw the wrong conclusions, but non-verbal language and tone of voice are helpful. In contrast, with on-line communication we don’t have those advantages, and we find ourselves relying on punctuation, capital letters, or even emoticons to convey certain messages. So there is considerable room for misinterpretation and misunderstandings.

Constant Access and Distractions
The sheer convenience of the mobile Internet can make businesspeople accessible 24-7 if that is what they want, and in some businesses constant availability is an attractive differentiator. But people can become resentful and stressed when they are at the constant beck-and-call of ‘the office’. Beyond that, the siren song of technology can be a distraction: instant messaging, social networking, computer games, and other online temptations have been known to draw attention away from more productive tasks, whether working in the office or remotely.

In sum, the benefits of ICT are often accompanied by a phenomenon I call ‘empathy undertow’, which extracts a cost from individuals and eventually from business relationships. Having reviewed a number of these challenges at the personal level, in upcoming posts we will turn to their impact at the team and strategic levels.

Good luck, and until next time…