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Empathy Doesn't Work: Why DEI Requires Action and Accountability


Empathy is often seen as a key component of creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace or society. But I want to the word out of the entire DEI discussion. Yes. You heard me. Stop saying it because it is doing more harm than good. By definition, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. That, my friends is impossible. You can have sympathy, but you cannot empathize with woman in the workplace. You cannot even for a moment put yourselves in the shoes of a black colleague or someone from the LGBTQ+ community. You will never understand how any person from any race or under-represented population of people feels because at the end of the day, you get to go back to being you. After the workshops and after the exercises, you get to be the same person you have been raised to be. Same biases and same privileges. While we have been incorrectly using empathy to help us understand and connect with others, it’s not enough to drive real change. It keeps us in a parallel universe. And because the politicians and even well-meaning CEOs don’t want to really rip off the bandage so the wounds can breathe and heal. This is where we’ll stay. Stuck in MARVEL’s Mirror Dimension doing lots of work but not really affecting real change.

When it comes to DEI, sympathy alone (Not empathy. Remember, we’re throwing that one out) can lead to "performative allyship" or a surface-level commitment to diversity and inclusion that doesn't translate into meaningful action or results. To truly create a more equitable and inclusive environment, we need to move beyond the surface and take concrete steps to address systemic inequities.

Here are some reasons why it may not be enough when it comes to DEI:

1. Empathy can be selective: Empathy is often based on personal experiences or similarities, which means it can’t extend to those who are different from us. This leads to blind spots and biases because we can never fully understand the experiences of others. 2. Empathy doesn't necessarily lead to action: Feeling empathy for someone doesn't always translate into taking action to support them. In fact, empathy can sometimes lead to inaction or a sense of helplessness, especially if the issues at hand seem too big or complex to tackle. Hence, the politicians step in and blame DEI for exposing wounds instead of taking a scientific approach and realizing that only when we’ve identified where it hurts can we begin to administer the cure. 3. Empathy can be performative: In some cases, empathy can become a way to signal virtue or align oneself with popular causes, without actually doing anything to address the underlying issues. This can lead to a "check-the-box" mentality that doesn't result in meaningful change.


So what can we do instead? Here are some steps we can take to move beyond empathy and towards real change:

1. Educate ourselves: While we can’t truly understand the experiences of others, we need to actively seek out knowledge and perspectives that are different from our own. This might mean reading books or articles, attending workshops or seminars, or engaging in conversations with people from different backgrounds. AND LISTENING. 2. Take action: Once we have a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, we need to take concrete steps to address them. This might mean advocating for policy changes, supporting organizations that are working towards equity and inclusion, or making changes within our own organizations or communities. 3. Hold ourselves accountable: Creating a more equitable and inclusive environment requires ongoing effort and a willingness to be held accountable. This means tracking our progress, acknowledging when we fall short, and being open to feedback and critique from others.


So, while empathy is impossible and sympathy is not enough, knowing that fact is an important starting point for real advances in creating a more equitable and inclusive environment. In my workshops we work hard on establishing a foundation for everything DEI. It sounds corny at first, but the answer is LOVE. Moving beyond our feelings, taking real action, and holding ourselves accountable for creating real change begins with how we feel about the HUMAN race. People over our feelings. People over our biases. People over politics. Making mental and emotional sacrifices for the greater good. Now that’s love.

Until next time, here’s a teaser on what I teach on L.O.V.E.™ from a business perspective: L – Learn by listening, by reading by dropping your guard. Blood doesn’t flow through a blocked artery. Forget what you think you know and become open. O – Own the mission as if you created it. Be the change you want to see. Be accountable and take responsibility for where you’ve fallen short. V – Value other points of view, other cultures, other people and their experiences. Even the experiences that are not pleasant carry precious lessons. E – Engage. Get to work. Make sure in your doing that your activity is meaningful to the people that you want to serve. Remember, it's not about you. It's not REALLY about your diversity numbers. Its about serving people. All activity is not created equal.

Be CAREful out there and as always, Keep Pressin’ Scott G. Smith


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