Pathetic Responses in a Conscious Business

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I know this is a rather strange title for a short article! Welcome to the world of pathos in organisations. You might have first heard the word “pathos” in your literature class at school or college, used to describe a quality in writing or art that evokes an emotional response.

That’s what pathos is all about – feelings; our emotional landscape. Businesses and organisations also contain an emotional landscape. Organisations are collections of people, and those people have feelings; they react emotionally to what is going on around them. They also behave in ways that invoke emotional responses in other people. Collectively, an organisation’s culture can encourage and promote certain kinds of emotional response over others. A conscious business is one in which the emotional landscape is known, brought into awareness of its leadership processes, as close to real time as possible. Sometimes the emotional, collective “mood” of a business or organisation is called its “morale”, which is often set along a simple line of high or low, good or bad.”

In art, pathos is an appeal to the emotions. Pathos arouses an emotional response. Pathos is aimed at feelings.

The word “pathetic” has developed to mean arousing feelings of pity and sympathy. When we describe something or someone as pathetic, it suggests inadequacy, something or someone to feel sorry for. In a strict sense, pathetic simply means, “arousing a feeling response”. But people don’t use the word in a strict sense. It’s a shame, because a “pathetic” state could be one in which feelings of all different possible kinds could be invoked.

There are several words which contain “pathos” in them. The ones we all know are “sympathy”, “empathy”, “apathy” and “antipathy”. Of course there are other words that draw on pathos such as “psychopathy”.

The “pathos” quality underpins much behaviour in organisations and it can be more or less conscious. I can choose to be sympathetic towards a colleague or a customer, or I can just “be” sympathetic, without realising it, as a kind of default behaviour, rooted in my personality. I can be naturally empathetic with a friend, or I might try to develop it as a skill, by doing a course on empathy or emotional intelligence.

Sympathy is when a person feels FOR another – it is born of compassion, even when we cannot share, or have have never shared specific experience with another.

An employee has lost a close relative to a serious illness. They are having trouble concentrating at work. We’ve personally never lost a close relative to a serious illness, but we feel sympathy for the difficulties the person is going through.

Sympathy can warm the organisation up.

Empathy is when a person feels WITH another – that is born of common ground experienced, which can either be very specifically similar, or can be imagined from a more generic shared experience.

An new employee is stressed at work, overwhelmed by the amount of new information and knowledge they are having to absorb very quickly. We remember those first days when we were a new employee. We feel empathy WITH the employee, because we feel the same or similar feelings, knowing what it was like for us.

A customer has found the instructions for using one of our products too confusing. We find using the product easy and find the instructions accessible. However, we listen to the customer and imagine what it might be like to be in their shoes. It evokes feelings of empathy, because we feel WITH the customer, based on our imagination of being in their shoes.

Empathy connects the organisation up. It creates “fellowship” and “association”.

Antipathy is negative experience TOWARDS another. It can come from a lot of different motives but can also be useful when it is born of RIGHTEOUS anger (a deeper will to do the good).

We discover a colleague has behaved deliberately unfairly towards another employee. We feel deeply that, without fairness, we cannot to operate properly as a business. We feel negatively towards the colleague, and these express themselves in a direct challenge to them and a criticism of their behaviour.

Where there isn’t a “motive to do the good” (labelled here as a motive of “righteousness”), antipathy can be experienced as violence, and even bullying.

Antipathy, used with a motive of “doing the good”, wakes the organisation up.

Apathy involves lacking feeling FOR or WITH another. It can be born of a kind of cold uncaring, or indifference. But it can also come from a deeper respect for the space or need for silence of another.

A member of the design team feels frustrated one of their key design ideas has not been accepted into product development. She wants to be left alone. We give her space, and she feels we are doing that. She doesn’t feel the pressure of us worrying about here. She feels genuinely left alone. Any sympathy or empathy has been parked by us, until called upon.

Apathy, when used skilfully and mindfully, calms the organisation down.

All of these “pathic” responses are useful, even vital in a business or community. Just going for empathy is a bit narrow minded. Why do I say that? because empathy is being played up a lot in the field of conscious business at the moment.

Over-structured, traditional hierarchies that focus more on systems and rules, than on people, can develop pathological apathy; people matter much less than systems. People feel ignored, unacknowledged and under-valued. Often, to counter this, businesses and organisations head to the other extreme and try to inject empathy into the culture as a kind of strong antidote.

What I love about human beings is their potential for a wider range of responses – all subtle and nuanced. Overdoing empathy can create a kind of fundamentalist approach to it. I believe that empathy, when practised one-sidedly and dogmatically is a form of organisational madness – specifically a kind of mania.

Empathy alone can become an unbalancing element in a conscious business. Paying attention to it in a balanced way, can help to address the coldness of apathetic detachment. It can also act as a useful bedfellow to sympathy (which often sits, underplayed, in the shadow of its more “cool” sister, empathy).

A conscious business ranges mindfully across the entire diverse emotional repertoire which includes empathy, sympathy, apathy and antipathy.

There’s huge potential here for conscious businesses to become emotionally wise. To do that, it needs to become skilful in all of the emotional responses.


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