Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Take a walk in another man's oily shoes (BP and empathy)

There is a gaping hole in the Gulf of Mexico that needs to be plugged immediately. I’m speaking of course, of the hole in Tony Hayward’s heart. The BP CEO’s recent comment that he’d “like his life back” is emblematic of a larger concern among leaders of all stripes; empathy is seldom (ever?) a requirement for being installed in a position of power. His moment in the international media sun has been pocked with numerous examples of his inability to walk a mile in another man’s oil-slick waders. Mr. Hayward is his most self-absorbed when he is his most earnest. None of his other comments have rung with the same childlike authenticity as his plea for a return to personal normalcy. Observe too his walk along a ruined Gulf beach; flanked by puddles of oil, and canary-suited cleanup workers, his only act was to shoo the cameramen covering his survey of the damage. These offenses notwithstanding, the most painfully ironic evidence of his disconnectedness to the human impact of this disaster was his recent attendance at a glitzy yacht race, featuring his $700,000 boat, “Bob.” Nice try Tony, but not even a pedestrian name like “Bob” will fool the world into thinking you’re a man of the people.

I’m not saying that I wish Tony Hayward had acted differently because it looks bad, or seems insensitive, or because it sends a bad message. Those are public relations concerns and what I’m talking about is bigger than PR. I don’t wish that Tony Hayward had acted differently, I wish that he were different fundamentally. Simply put, empathy is the ability to feel deeply what another person is feeling. You won’t see “empathetic” as a desired characteristic on any job posting, and that reality has negative implications for workplace outcomes tangible and intangible.

Consider for a moment what percentage of the 50% drop in BP’s stock price owes to the gross insensitivity exhibited by BP executives and spokespeople. Imagine the lost morale and subsequent loss of productivity of the 80,300 BP employees that go to work every day for an organization that has shown such disdain for “small people” (another gem by BP chief Carl-Henric Svanberg). Through a series of experiments, renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman has shown that emotional intelligence (EQ) and intelligence quotient (IQ) have no correlation with one another. Anecdotally, Dr. Tony Hayward, who holds a Ph.D. from Edinburgh University has borne out this research before our very eyes. BP’s privileging of IQ over EQ will cost them dearly, as it has so many organizations that have erred similarly. After all, “Britain isn’t the only place that has oil.”

Daniel Crosby, Ph.D.

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