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Empathy Challenge


Concerns about inequality grew precipitously in 2020, posing a challenge for organizations and raising questions on how they should respond. How should they manage the narratives they use to shape their brands to respond to rapidly emerging polarities? Companies need a new approach that blends pragmatism with empathy, and that ensures they follow through on their intentions to do good.

See Mark Curtis give a summary of the Empathy Challenge.

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If you'd like a deeper understanding of this trend, read on for more detail.

Black lives matter
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Climate change has been a major concern in recent years but, for many people, inequality became one of the dominant issues in 2020.

As we’ve observed in previous Fjord Trends reports, people are increasingly concerned about the purpose and ethics of the organizations they work for and whose products or services they use. More recently, the word “privilege” is everywhere, with renewed energy in the Black Lives Matter movement and countless impassioned discussions about racial injustice. Meanwhile, longstanding inequalities between rich and poor, old and young, men and women, and different ethnic groups came under sharp focus as Covid-19’s impact was felt unevenly around the world.

We flagged companies’ growing interest in meeting the needs of all stakeholders in last year’s Fjord Trends. As it becomes the norm, issues around stakeholder management—like guarding against disenfranchisement in staff, customers or shareholders—are moving centerstage, which made managing narratives well more important than ever.

Companies have to figure out how they want to handle polarizing narratives and which side of the story, if any, they choose to support. With inequality now top of mind, what companies do about it and how they talk about it matters a great deal. But mastering the art of shaping a narrative has never been harder.

Empathy is fundamental to good design. It’s an intimate understanding of the person you are designing for and shapes how you design an interaction or interface. But developing empathy for everyone is harder when companies take a stand on social issues.

Conflicting opinions on how best to address today’s concerns can create stress, division and disenfranchisement. It can lead to organizations and individuals telling themselves misleading narratives, leaving them vulnerable to criticism.

To address this challenge, an organization can go down two routes: firstly, it can narrow its focus from thinking about all society to smaller sub-groups, which starts with prioritizing subjects that are closest in line with its purpose, then building behaviors around it. Alternatively, it can try to manage the polarities. For instance, eBay chose to help small businesses that couldn’t survive months of lockdown by launching an accelerator program and offering a free ecommerce platform.

Over the years, Design Thinking has made empathy seem like something easily ticked off a list, by equating it with listening. Yet empathy is not just listening and nor is it a one-off exercise. Empathy is a way of behaving. This means that designers must not only craft the reality but work with communication experts to consider how to manage the narrative and what tools they can use to enrich it.

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Organizations need to be empathetic and be seen to behave as such. However, baked into the very concept is the fact that it’s impossible to be empathetic to everyone all the time, so squaring this circle is the empathy challenge.

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Consider your employee stakeholders. You must carry the majority of your workforce with you (100% is a big ask). In order to do so, build purpose from the ground up and focus more on internal communications around empathy than external ones. Your employees are your advocates and will spread your empathy messages beyond your walls.

Make your choices an open narrative that you engage with and align them to your purpose. Don’t take on too many, as that might paralyze you. Be careful not to perpetuate your own echo chambers or create a culture that opens divisions within your company that you cannot close.

Bring together design and communications to effectively close the gap between what you say and what you do.

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