Outplacement: genuine personalised support or unhelpful tokenism to look good and minimise fallout?

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I have formed my own opinions about the benefits of outplacement, from my experiences in management consulting and HR over the last thirty years. These have been mixed – more negative than positive. Let me firstly share three negative case studies from my own experience.

1. Years ago, I worked in a large organisation which restructured dramatically to keep up with its competitors. The outcomes: around 1000 senior managers were retrenched simultaneously, all receiving the dreaded pink slip without any forewarning. The reaction? For so many, it was shock, disbelief, denial, rage, anxiety and resentment. For some it was an opportunity to start their own business, retire early, or try something new. Minimal support was given to work through these powerful emotions, and two of them actually committed suicide. I believe we have progressed quite a bit since that occurred those years ago, but still have concerns about the degree of tokenism in outplacement that too often occurs.

2. In another organisation that I worked in, the CEO ordered a very senior executive to be marched off the premises without any forewarning, because he was critical of that person’s management style and results. I personally know how this greatly affected his self-esteem and confidence – he was shattered for quite some time after that event.

3. I carried out telephone crisis counselling for six years and also trained crisis counsellors. The Deputy Director at one point told me that a charitable organisation had just retrenched around half of its staff. How did they do this? They told the staff to be retrenched to stay on the ground floor, advised all the remaining staff to go the first floor, and then told those staff that when they returned to their desks, the other staff would no longer be there. The retrenched staff had to leave instantly – no time to say farewell to the other staff, no support provided – just pack up their personal belonging and leave immediately. A charitable organisation? The Deputy Director was shocked at this heartless action, and so was I.

While these are negative experiences, I should point out that many organisations now do the right thing by their retrenched employees, and there are many very professional outplacement firms that provide valuable support for those in need of help.

It is interesting to read the literature on outplacement. I’d like to share some findings:

(a) There is a considerable contrast between outplacement firms in terms of the quality of services provided to retrenched people. One writer suggests that individualised, customised programs have often been replaced by ‘cookie-cutter’ packages, in which groups are lectured on the key points of finding a job in a way that is ‘general enough to include everyone and help no one.’ This often applies to the more junior staff who have been retrenched, with executives typically being given longer and more personalised support. The more professional outplacement firms do provide much more customised, ongoing support, with a fee to match, of course (you get what you pay for!).

(b) Outplacement services have increasingly made their services available interactively online, over the phone or even by texting, so that no travel is needed. This can be both positive (time saved) and negative (less personal/supportive).

(c) One of the more frequent complaints is about the standardised resumes, application letters and advice often given to them, as well as the lack of individual attention and ongoing support.

(d) A significant proportion of employees receiving outplacement as part of their severance never actually use this service. One wonders why – the answer is not very clear on this. Perhaps the service has not been effectively ‘sold’ to them, they heard negative reports about this service, or they were quick to get alternative employment.

(e) Outplacement firms in effect have two customers – the people being retrenched and the organisation requesting their services. You will appreciate which customer the outplacement firms are more responsive to. If organisations pay lip service to the whole process and are not willing to pay for proper, individualised support, the whole process can be seen as largely a waste of time and money, and reinforcing vulnerability and low self-confidence that participants already feel.

(f) Many employers and outplacement firms under-estimate the significant grief, fear, anger, shock and loss in self-esteem/self-confidence that can accompany retrenchment. Even some of the more reputable outplacement firms do not sufficiently focus on this area. Addressing the psychological components of job loss should be a key part of any outplacement service. People need support to assimilate what has happened to them, and to work through their emotions. They should then be able to approach the whole job-seeking process with greater confidence and purpose.

Narayan van de Graaff

Changing Corporate Cultures: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good: Part 3

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The Good

There are many examples of organisations experiencing and overcoming great crises, to become very successful, well-known and reputable organisations. Some of them are listed below.

Apple was founded in 1976 to develop and sell personal computers. For many years, Microsoft continued to gain market share with Windows by focusing on delivering software to cheap commodity personal computers, while Apple was delivering a richly engineered but expensive experience. Apple relied on high profit margins and estranged many customers who could no longer afford their high priced products. Apple also experimented with various other unsuccessful consumer targeted products during the 1990s.

Steve Jobs was brought back as advisor in 1997 and ultimately CEO – he began restructuring the company’s product line and worked collaboratively with Jonathan Ive to rebuild the company’s status. In the following years, Apple introduced a new all-in-one computer (the iMac), the iPod and the iPhone, and the iTunes store. All of these products became phenomenally successful. Between early 2003 and October 2010 Apple shares went up from around $6 a share to over $300. Apple’s resurrection is seen by many as the most profound business comeback in the last few decades.

IBM had a powerful reputation and extraordinary success in the 1960s and 1970s. It dominated the IT industry until the early 1990’s. Then it underwent a major crisis, and was in danger of becoming extinct. By 1994, IBM had lost almost $16 billion due to the changing dynamics in the IT Industry. This was attributed to its elephantine size, an individualistic corporate culture and inability to integrate the business to offer a suite of appropriate solutions to its clients.

Over the next decade, Lou Gerstner (who became the new CEO) showed that even elephants could dance. “Transformation of an enterprise begins with a sense of crisis or urgency,” he stated. “No institution will go through fundamental change unless it believes it is in deep trouble and needs to do something different to survive.”

Gerstner saw the need for integrating the company as a team, common technical standards, and a culture focusing on client needs and performance. While Gerstner initially didn’t see culture as significant, he subsequently stated, “The thing I have learned at IBM is that culture is everything.”

General Motors once the world’s most respected carmaker, faced disaster in 2007 when it sacked tens of thousands of workers and filed for bankruptcy. The government bailed it out and just a year later, GM regained profitability. After trimming costs and killing struggling divisions, it raised $20 billion by going public again. By the end of 2013, the government sold off the last of its GM shares – the end result was an incredible turnaround which saved around 1.2 million jobs.

Delta evolved from a fleet of crop-dusting biplanes into one of the USA’s biggest airlines. Squeezed by higher fuel prices and increased competition, it filed for bankruptcy in the mid-2000s. It then renegotiated union contracts and expanded its fleet with used planes rather than new ones, and implemented other strategies. Delta merged with Northwest Airlines in 2008 to subsequently become the world’s largest airline.

Lego suffered in the 1990s because of the rise of video games and other competition, and in 1998, made a loss for the first time. In 2004, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp became CEO, cut costs and introduced some lines which became very successful. Lego was recently the world’s most profitable toymaker and in 2015, replaced Ferrari as Brand Finance’s “world’s most powerful brand.”

There are many other examples of such dramatic turnarounds. A common theme is the crisis and threat of extinction due to changing markets, technology and competition, and sometimes poor leadership. The turnaround then typically occurs with a new and visionary CEO (such as Steve Jobs and Lou Gerstner), who makes drastic changes, foresees future market needs, and implements successful far-reaching strategies. Such CEOs also recognise the need for ensuring corporate cultural change that will align with the organisation’s new vision, values and strategies. These case studies reinforce the critical importance of leadership. Of course, leadership is vital at all levels in the organisation – the CEO cannot do it alone.

Narayan van de Graaff

Changing Corporate Cultures: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good: Part 2

Change Word Barrier Breaking Revolution Adapting

The Bad and the Ugly
There are many case studies of organisations which either didn’t keep up with the rapidly changing world around them, had dubious leadership/management practices, or behaved unethically/unlawfully and paid the ultimate price. Here are some well-known local and international examples:

One-Tel was the fourth largest telecommunications company in Australia in 2001, with over two million customers and operations in eight countries. Key reasons for the collapse were seen to be strategic mistakes, incorrect pricing policy, and serious deficiencies in its corporate governance. These included poor internal control and financial reporting, the board’s oversight of management, and poor executive pay-to performance link. The collapse of One-Tel provided several key lessons on the role of corporate governance in preventing corporate collapse.

HIH Insurance was Australia’s second largest insurance company. It was placed into provisional liquidation in 2001, and was the largest corporate collapse in Australia’s history – losses were around $5.3 billion. Investigations into the cause of the collapse brought about conviction and imprisonment of some of HIH management on various charges relating to fraud. The director Rodney Adler, CEO Ray Williams and others were sentenced to prison for fraudulent activity.

Enron Corporation was a US company, and one of the world’s major electricity, natural gas, communications and pulp and paper companies, with claimed revenues of nearly $101 billion in 2000. Fortune named it “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six consecutive years. In 2001, its reported financial condition was shown to have been sustained by systematic and creatively planned accounting fraud. The scandal brought into question the accounting practices and activities of many US corporations, and ended up causing the dissolution of Arthur Andersen.

Arthur Andersen was forced into bankruptcy in 2002, because of indictments during the Enron investigation. Many believed that its downfall was due to its relationship with Enron for largely legal reasons. However, analyst Charles Ellis disagreed. “Arthur Andersen, once the world’s most admired auditing and professional services firm, descended through level after level of self-destructive decline to its ultimate death.” Ellis linked the firm’s decline to the 1950s, when senior management shifted their focus from professional excellence and integrity to beating their competitors’ revenue. When Enron became a key client in the late 1990s and were clearly using dubious practices, Arthur Andersen’s culture had reached a point of no return.

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was brought about by a series of major collapses in short succession, as a result of dubious financial practices. Many large financial companies collapsed in 2008, as increasing numbers defaulted on housing loans. From 2003, Lehman Brothers had invested heavily in mortgage debt, in markets deregulated from consumer protection by the US government. Losses increasingly grew in 2008, and the company was forced to file for bankruptcy after the US government refused to extend a loan. The various major collapses triggered a global financial market meltdown.

Lessons to be learned?

The common threads weaving together these and other major collapses appear to be highly dubious values and unethical/corrupt behaviours of key players, and lack of effective controls. History does have a habit of repeating itself, unless we learn these critical lessons.

Narayan van de Graaff

Changing Corporate Cultures: The Bad, the Ugly and the Good

Depositphotos_24048059_l (640x392)

What do we mean by corporate culture? It has been defined as the shared values, attitudes and behaviours that characterise members of an organisation, which in turn are linked to the organisation’s strategies, structure, and approaches to its stakeholders. These patterns of values and behaviours define what is encouraged and discouraged in the organisation – they may be implicit or explicit.

All thought leaders would agree that it is no easy feat to change a corporate culture, just as it is not easy for individuals to change entrenched values, habits, behaviours. Research has shown that only 10% of people who have had heart bypass surgery or an angioplasty make the necessary major modifications to their diets and lifestyles. In other words, most individuals (and organisations) don’t alter behaviours, despite overwhelming evidence that this is necessary.

In a previous article, I referred to a model which shows that humans typically deal with major change and uncertainty in four phases: denial (this isn’t happening; this won’t affect me), resistance (this is terrible; I’m going to fight this), exploration (this could work; I’ll give it a try); and finally commitment (this is great; I’m going to make this work). Unfortunately, many people and organisations never get to the commitment phase.

I attended a seminar on mergers and acquisitions some time ago, where an attendee told us that he was part of a company which had been taken over by another company 18 years ago. The employees of his company were still wearing the ‘old’ company uniform and not communicating with employees from the ‘new’ company! Another attendee then shared that this had happened in his company, but it was only twelve years ago!!

Fortunately, many organisations have shown us that major, positive corporate change is possible. My next article will examine some key organisations that didn’t change when they needed to and in fact paid the ultimate price (the ugly), as well as organisations that were quite unethical and even unlawful, and also paid dearly for those transgressions (the bad). The following article will then examine organisations that overcame significant challenges and implemented effective strategies to become highly successful (the good).

Corporate Paradigm Shifts
A paradigm is a distinct set of thought patterns, a way of looking at something. Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity created a new paradigm which challenged the Newtonian way of thinking.

Organisations have paradigms that drive their strategies, policies and procedures. When there is a takeover or merger, paradigm shifts are likely to occur. I have worked with some major organisations involved with mergers, and seen first-hand the paradigm shifts and also paradigm paralysis (inability or refusal to see beyond the current models of thinking) that can occur. This can be driven by resistance to the merger/takeover, particularly when the corporate cultures of the two organisations were very different. For example, in one merger, the one company had a fairly informal, laid-back culture, whereas the other company was more formal, aggressive and rules-driven. Employees of both organisations were quite critical of, and threatened by each other.

In the next two articles, we will see examples of paradigm paralysis, as well as powerful paradigm shifts.

Two questions for you: how would you describe your organisational culture? Does it resist or encourage positive and necessary change? And how do you deal with significant change?

Narayan van de Graaff

How do Cultural Imprints Affect Learning and Leadership Styles?

Businessmen recognizing one another

We all have cultural imprints (often unconscious) which influence our values, beliefs and perceptions of what is appropriate and inappropriate. These can vary greatly across cultures, and can also influence our learning and leadership styles. For example, what may be seen as strong and appropriate leadership in some cultures is seen as authoritarian/bullying in others.

I recently delivered a two-day Organisational Communication program to 55 MBA students at an Indian university. These were graduates seeking to become future leaders, and most of them had gone straight from completing their degree to the MBA. When I sought participant input, they were quite reluctant, except for a few more confident students, probably because they had several years’ work experience. Interestingly, the feedback I received from the participants at the end of the program was very positive, with the main suggestion for improvement being to make the program more interactive!

A friend told me that when he went to Korea to do some training a few months ago, he had taken a whole bunch of caramello bears with him, and when he gave a caramello bear to those participants who contributed, there was no problem getting interaction!

So much for learning. What about leadership in various cultural settings? It is becoming more common to have a culturally diverse team – good leaders recognise and embrace the cultural differences in their team, while approaching each team member as an individual. Some leadership styles are more prevalent in certain countries and cultures than others. For instance, some studies demonstrated a positive relationship between paternalistic leadership and positive work attitudes in the Middle East, Latin America, and Pacific Asia, but not in the USA. Paternalistic leadership combines strong discipline and authority with fatherly benevolence and moral integrity couched in a personalised atmosphere.

I was recently asked to intervene with a team involving significant conflict between the leader and particular team members. This leader had previously worked in leadership roles in South-East Asia, and had what I would call a paternalistic leadership style. While this might have been appropriate in previous work settings, it was not seen as acceptable in his current workplace. This leader’s cultural imprint was very different from those of most team members, and this appeared to be the main reason for the conflict.

One trait attributed to effective multicultural leadership is known as multicultural perspective taking. It is the ability to take the perspective of others within their cultural context and to adapt quickly when encountering individuals or groups from unfamiliar cultures. In our global economy, and within Australia with its great cultural diversity, it is becoming increasingly important for all leaders to understand and embrace cultural diversity and recognise the cultural imprints underlying this diversity.

How aware of you of your cultural imprints? How might this affect your leadership and/or learning styles?

Narayan van de Graaff

The Old Grey Mayor Ain’t What He Used to Be!

I’m old enough to remember a song of my childhood, with a slightly different title to that written above: The Old Gray Mare Ain’t What She Used to Be. Some authors maintain that this song referred to the performance of a horse, Lady Suffolk, the first horse recorded as trotting a mile in less than two and a half minutes – in 1843!

I’m obviously referring to mayors, many of whom are male with grey hair, and ‘old’ by some standards. I tried to access demographics on Australian mayors, but didn’t succeed, so my writings are based on anecdotal evidence, rather than solid statistics. A few weeks ago, I facilitated a one-day workshop for 17 councillors, three of whom were current mayors, and two being past mayors. Two of those five were women, and one mayor was probably in his early forties – definitely not old and grey. I also very recently ran a half-day workshop for a group of mayors as part of a Mayors’ Weekend program. Again, they were a diverse mixture, with some being women, some in their 30s and 40s, and some probably in their 50s and 60s. ‘Old’ has recently been redefined as 75 or older, so the above mayors were not old by that definition.

Many people may not be aware of the key roles that mayors and councillors play in our society. All NSW councils have between 5 and 15 councillors, who in effect, are the board of directors of their particular council. Their role is to govern the council – this involves overseeing the direction of the council, developing/signing off on the strategic plans, monitoring progress, providing effective civic leadership, appointing the General Manager and monitoring their performance, and so on.

The mayor has sometimes been described as the first among equals because of their key role. They chair council meetings, are the principal spokesperson for the council, and also lead councillors in exercising their responsibilities and ensuring good governance. They have a key role in promoting community engagement and cohesion, and representing Council in various forums and ceremonial functions.

In contrast to the governing role of mayor and councillors, the general manager is responsible for implementing their decisions, producing the strategic plans in consultation with the governing body, and providing advice as needed to the Mayor and governing body. The relationship between the mayor and general manager is a critical one, and some councils in NSW were dismissed a decade or so ago because that relationship had become toxic. Most of the councils I have worked with in the last 18 years enjoy a healthy constructive working relationship between these two key players.

I have the highest of respect for mayors. I believe that the allowance they receive (In NSW at least) is not commensurate with their critical role and the demands it places on them. It is a highly demanding job, and not one for the faint-hearted. Whether they’re ‘old, grey males’, females or relatively young, they certainly deserve our respect and support.

Narayan van de Graaff

How do You Score on The Original Australian IQ Test?

Years ago, as a recruitment consultant, I administered a battery of tests, including intelligence tests, which comprised abstract reasoning and other areas. I never then considered the extent to which they were culturally biased. I now know that it is very difficult to develop tests that measure intelligence without cultural bias. Some such attempts have been to eliminate language by designing tests with demonstrations and pictures, or by designing culture-fair (rather than culture-free) tests.

By completing an intelligence test from a very different culture to ours, we can experience some of the difficulties involved with culturally biased methods of testing intelligence. Try to complete the following intelligence test, before you read the answers. PS – I failed miserably!

The Original Australian Test of Intelligence (source unknown)

These items relate to the culture of the Edward River Community in Far North Queensland

1. What number comes next in the sequence, one, two, three, __________?

2. How many lunar months are in a year?

3. As wallaby is to animal so cigarette is to __________

4. Three of the following items may be classified with salt-water crocodile. Which are they?

marine turtle brolga frilled lizard black snake (circle your answers)

5. Which items may be classified with sugar?

honey witchetty grub flour water-lillies (circle your answers)

6. We eat food and we __________ water.

7. Sam, Ben and Harry are sitting together. Sam faces Ben and Ben gives him a cigarette. Harry sits quietly with his back to both Ben and Sam and contributes nothing to the animated conversation going on between Sam and Ben. One of the men is Ben’s brother, the other is Ben’s sister’s child. Who is the nephew?

a. Sam b. Harry c. Ben (circle your answer)

8. Suppose your brother in his mid-forties dies unexpectedly. Would you attribute his death to (circle your answer):

a. God b. Fate c. Germs D. No-one e. Someone f. Your brother himself

9. You are out in the bush with your wife and young children and you are all hungry. You have a rifle and bullets. You see three animals all within range – a young emu, a large kangaroo and a small female wallaby. Which should you shoot for food? a. Young emu b. Large kangaroo c. Small female wallaby (circle your answer)

10. Why should you be careful of your cousins?

Scoring Sheet: Original Australian Test of Intelligence

1. One, two, three, many….the kuuk thaayorre system of counting only goes to three…thana, kuthir, pinalam, mong, mong, mong, etc. The word mong is best translated as “many” since it can mean any number between 4 and 9 or 10 after which yuur mong (many figures) would be more appropriate.

2. While thirteen is right in European terms, it is irrelevant in Edward River terms. Their people recognise the lunar month as the time between one phase of the moon and the next appearance of that phase. The annual cycle is described in terms of environmental rhythms rather than fixed divisions of time. The “year” then is the time between the onset of one wet season and the onset of the next wet season – since wet seasons may be early or late, who can be precise?

3. The right answer is “tree”. This stems from the kuuk thaayorre speakers early experience with tobacco which was “stick” tobacco, hence it is classified with tree.

4. Crocodiles, turtles, birds and frill necked lizards are all classified as minh (which broadly might be translated as animals). Snakes along with eels are classified as yak, which may be broadly translated as snake-like creatures.

5. All the items are classified with sugar as belong to the class of objects known as may. Broadly translated, this means vegetable food. Even witchetty grubs found in the roots of trees fall into this category – so does honey which is also associated with trees and hence fruit.

6. “Eat” is the right word – well sort of, anyway. Kuuk thaayorre does not distinguish between eating and drinking, and they use the same verb to describe both functions.

7. The clues are easy for kuuk thaayorre. An avoidance taboo operates between mother’s brother and sister’s son. Politeness requires that sister’s son should never directly face mother’s brother nor talk to him directly in company. Sam and Ben are obviously brothers because of their unrestrained interaction while Harry, with his back turned to both his uncles is obviously the respectful nephew.

8. God has been equated with a mythological character and he is definitely non-malevolent. Both fate and germs are concepts foreign to the kuuk thaayorre belief system. No-one dies without reason and suicide is unknown to them, so the right answer is SOMEONE – which is the case in this sorcery riddled society.

9. The small female wallaby is the right answer. Emu is a food that may be consumed only by very old people. Kangaroos (especially large ones) may not be eaten by parents or their children. The children will get sick otherwise. Everyone knows that….don’t they?

10 Because some of them have to be avoided like the plague. For example, a male must avoid his father’s sister’s daughter, or anyone classified with her. Such relations are called poison cousins in Aboriginal English.

Narayan van de Graaff

Happiness at Work: You’ve Got to be Joking! (or not?)

Four smiling employees standing around their manager

I ran a workshop recently on Pricing for Fees and Charges, for a group of managers. An icebreaking exercise I do is for participants to introduce themselves, indicate their workshop objective, and share one interesting thing about themselves. One manager shared that she really loves her work. The others seemed incredulous that someone would actually love their work. I then asked everyone how many loved their work, and no hands went up! I can honestly say that with all the challenges and stresses inherent in my job, I do love my work – I was surprised at that outcome.

Why does happiness at work appear to be elusive, and what factors create (un)happiness for workers? Some recent research has shown that people typically leave their organisations primarily because of poor relationships – in particular with their immediate manager, but also with their colleagues and with the organisational culture.  The old saying, “People leave their managers, not their company” has some real truth in it, and contains an important message for all those in leadership roles.  While remuneration is important, it is usually not the key reason for staff turnover.

Happiness at work has been linked  to the degree of autonomy and freedom (e.g. to progress, gain knowledge and have some control over working hours and conditions).  The existence of mobiles, email and internet can be both a blessing and a curse. It is hard to imagine life without them. Yet they can add to stress levels, because they blur the line between work and non-work hours and can dramatically impact on work-life balance.

So much for external work factors, and their influence on our happiness. What about internal factors – our attitudes, willingness to take responsibility for our situations, and recognising that we have choices? According to Srikumar Rao, author of Happiness at Work, the biggest obstacle to happiness is simply the belief that we are the prisoner of circumstances, powerless before the things that happen to us. We create our own experience, he adds.

The Mayo Clinic states that only 10 % of variation in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. Most of what determines happiness is our personality and our thoughts and behaviours. It also states that how to be happy is the sum of our life choices. People who are happy seem to intuitively know this, and their lives are built on five key areas:

  • Devoting time to family and friends
  • Appreciating what they have
  • Maintaining an optimistic outlook
  • Feeling a sense of purpose
  • Living in the moment

The above findings are echoed by the Dalai Lama’s comments: “Happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external conditions. Happiness can be achieved through the systematic training of our hearts and minds, through reshaping our attitudes and outlook. The key to happiness is in our own hands!”

How do you rate on the happiness scale?  If low, do you see this as being caused more by external events or your own attitude?  What do you need to do to become happier at work?

Narayan van de Graaff

Empathy Part 2: Learning from Barack, Brené and Rats!

The Empathy Deficit

As humans we suffer from an empathy deficit, according to Barack Obama. For the last decade, he has given some 60 speeches, writings and interviews on the importance of empathy. This photo shows Obama consoling a victim of Hurricane Sandy some years ago, and his empathy seems very genuine.


What does Obama say about empathy? “I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town…… When you think like this, when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers; it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.”http://www.northwestern.edu/newscenter/stories/2006/06/barack.html

Empathy and Vulnerability

What is the best way to ease someone’s pain and suffering? It is to demonstrate genuine empathy for them. In a wonderful animation, Brené Brown states that empathy requires us to internalise the feelings of another. “What makes things better is connection.” She states that we can only create an empathic connection if we are brave enough to really get in touch with our own fragilities.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

Some 22 million people have seen Brené’s video, The Power of Vulnerability. “In our culture,” she teaches, “we associate vulnerability with emotions we want to avoid such as fear, shame, and uncertainty. Yet we too often lose sight of the fact that vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, belonging, creativity, authenticity, and love.” Brené states that if we can drop the armour that protects us from feeling vulnerable, we open ourselves to the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives. She dispels the myth that vulnerability is weakness and reveals that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.

Empathy and Rats!

As humans we’re surely better than the creatures used in scientific experiments as a precursor for testing something new on humans – rats! Sorry, but the research says otherwise. In 2011, researchers at the University of Chicago conducted an experiment to determine whether a rat would release another rat from a cage without getting a reward. The answer was yes. “The rats learned intentionally and quickly after some sessions to open the restrainer and release the caged rats.” They also repeated this behaviour even when denied the reward of reunion. Even more remarkably, when the rats were presented with two cages, one containing a rat, the other chocolate, they would choose to open both cages and share the chocolate. The researchers reached the inescapable conclusion that the rats were displaying empathy!

My inescapable conclusion is that we can learn from Barack, Brené, rats and each other on the importance of empathy in our everyday lives. I suggest you ask yourself: How empathic am I? Do I suffer from an empathy deficit? And to what extent do I hide or appropriately reveal my vulnerability?

Narayan van de Graaff

Empathy Part One: Waddamana, Children and the Workplace

Empathy in Waddamana


Why is empathy important? I recently returned from a men’s retreat in the centre of Tasmania, where 64 men spent three days together. Many commented that the retreat was one of the most profound and transforming experiences of their lives. Why? A major reason was the significant empathy shown by the men for each other, as we shared our deeper feelings, opened up to our own emotional wounds as well as ‘positive’ emotions, and were very present to each other. In fact, the theme of the retreat was ‘Cultivating Presence.’

One definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. How was this demonstrated during the retreat? Men were able to speak openly without being interrupted, and encouraged to not ‘rescue’, interpret or try to solve other’s problems for them. There was a high focus on active listening, which is such a key component of empathy. Active listening involves quietening our own minds, so we can fully focus on what the other person is communicating, both verbally and non-verbally. There were no external distractions – the three days enabled men to open up and share in an environment of trust and acceptance.

Empathy in Children


One research study of children showed that over half of the children aged from 13 to 15 months tried to hug, touch or pat another child in distress. Children from 18 to 20 months showed increased pro-social behaviour, through verbal responses or other ways such as bringing a blanket or bandages. Virtually all of the children aged from 23 to 25 months showed concern and helped others, including strangers.

Empathy in the Workplace

It is noteworthy that young children have an innate tendency to demonstrate empathy, yet as adults, so many of us are challenged to do the same. Nevertheless, empathy is very important, both within and outside the workplace. Think of all those life situations in which you need and value support, understanding, empathy from others. There are plenty of them!

I design and deliver a lot of training to councillors and mayors, as well as council management and staff. Councillors have their share of challenges dealing with the public and each other! One councillor asked me, “Can you fake empathy?” I replied that perhaps we can, but remember that around 80% of our communication is non-verbal and people can often see through our attempts to fake attempts to be sincere. I also said, “Why not try to genuinely put yourself in their position, to really try and see it from their point of view. “

I once delivered a workshop to loans officers in a major bank. One of their responsibilities was to foreclose on people who were insolvent/bankrupt. In other words, they were on the point of losing their farm, business, home or other assets. When I discussed the role of empathy, he said, “I don’t care. I have all the power of the bank behind me, and they have none.” I replied, “This may be hard for you, but imagine that you are about to lose all the possessions you’ve strived for over the years. Your dream has turned into a nightmare, and now you’re talking to a loans officer who couldn’t care less. What would that feel like?” His response showed me that I hadn’t really penetrated through to him – his apathy to the needs of others was very palpable.

The Centre for Creative Leadership studied the influence of empathy on a manager’s job performance. Data was analysed from 6,731 managers in 38 countries. Key findings were that empathy is positively related to job performance, and that managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their own managers. Theodore Roosevelt stated that “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This is true both in and outside the workplace, and it is certainly true for leaders.

In my next blog, I will talk about the empathy deficit, and learning from Barack, Brené and rats! Stay tuned.

Narayan van de Graaff