In 2020, I had the front row seat, watching leaders experience transformation and drive race equity in their organization. Most for the first time. Maybe that was you? Moved by the seismic shifts brought on by the pandemic, murders of George Floyd and other African Americans, and the resugence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Perhaps the divisive nature of the 2020 election forced you to take a pause and reflect: What should I say? Do I share my own perspectives? What are other organizations and individuals doing? What do I do? How can I support my staff, colleagues and community? No matter who you are or your life’s circumstances, 2020 forced us all to face the gross systemic inequities in our society.
As we begin a new year, we have the opportunity to put our awareness into action. Awareness that we continue to be in a global pandemic that’s far from over, that divisive discourse in US politics prevailed through the holidays, that more households plunge deeper into poverty as tens of millions remain under/unemployed. Alongside this, an awareness of our privilege — the ability to work from home, safely travel (if needed), income and wealth that create stability, and most importantly, being able to drive change in our homes, at work, and in our communities.
Radical empathy, as a practice, offers each one of us an opportunity to take action — at no fiscal cost. “Radical” in this instance doesn’t mean extreme, it’s intended to be the opposite of “conventional” or “status-quo”. Why? Because conventional wisdom is just not enough. Our siloed, oven segregated lives all but limit exposure to people whose lives and identities are different than ours and therefore our ability to step into someone else’s shoes is also limited. Don’t believe me? US cities continue to be deeply segregated, 3 out of 4 white people don’t have any non-white friends (Washington Post), and despite evidence of diverse team making better decisions (HBR), within philanthropy, 92 percent of foundation presidents and 83 percent of full-time staff members are white (Bridgespan).
How do we push past personal biases and systemic barriers to take action? I’m proposing three ways to practice radical empathy today. Your empathy-muscle grows stronger the more you use it, the more you use it at work, the greater the impact of your giving.
- Allow yourself to be vulnerable.
It’s time to take off your armor. Dr. Brene Brown’s decades long research tells us that vulnerability is the ability to show people you’re not perfect, you make mistakes, and you don’t have all the answers. In other words, it’s showing people that you’re human. Leaders who are vulnerable open the door to innovation, inclusion and growth.
2. Know the difference between impact and intention.
Our privilege can often shield us from understanding the impact of our actions. When it comes to greater equity, belonging and justice, our intention is always to do better but the impact may not always be positive. A focus on impact brings greater accountability to our actions.
3. Open yourself to the experiences of others.
Our race, gender, socio-economics, geography, all impact our experience in the world — one that may not be shared by others. In one of her many talks, Carla Harris, Vice Chairman of Wealth Management at Morgan Stanley, recounts an experience of being mistaken as a steward while exiting her private jet. As a black woman at the very peak of her industry, she still faces microaggressions.
Even when it diverges from your experiences, believe those whose identity differs from your own — black, indigenous and people of color, women, individuals with visible or invisible disabilities, the LGBTQIA community and other groups experiencing oppression.
The moment that we gain empathy, of a universal kind, then something a little magical happens…Ah, you see — with empathy, we no longer see life as a battle. And therefore, our fellows, peers, colleagues are no longer merely our adversaries, enemies, opponents. What are they? They are just us, wearing a different face. — umair haque
This practice of radical empathy is a daily habit, an essential life skill — and an invitation to live life in alignment with your greatest values.