Wired for empathy: Nurturing a technologically advanced, deeply human workplace

Leaders must effectively navigate the modern workplace’s technological evolution, striking a balance between innovation and empathy.

According to a Gallup survey, 22 percent of workers worry that their jobs will become obsolete due to technology and 72 percent of Fortune 500 CHROs anticipate AI replacing jobs in the next three years. As the workplace evolves with advancements in technology and artificial intelligence, organizational leaders face the challenge of navigating change while embracing innovation and fostering empathy. In times of uncertainty, it may feel like a choice between innovation or empathy, growth or mindfulness. However, organizations don’t have to choose one or the other; they can achieve and exhibit both with the right approach.

The right approach to technological innovation starts with having the correct definition of technology and understanding its purpose. Technology exists to extend our natural human capabilities, helping us meet needs and solve problems. For instance, communication is possible without technology, but our capabilities are limited to direct interaction. Advancements like telephones and email extend our abilities beyond these limitations. In other words, when used appropriately, technology enhances our humanity instead of replacing it. With this understanding, organizational leaders must ensure that the use and adoption of technology serve people and avoid any destructive use.

Besides understanding our relationship with technology and our responsibility in wielding it as leaders, we also need a roadmap to make thoughtful decisions in times of unprecedented change. Throughout history, we see countless examples of leaders who embodied core values such as wisdom, temperance, courage and justice during times of significant change and difficulty, leading to their success and  benefiting the world around them. By studying past examples, we can learn how to navigate the future effectively.

Wisdom—Guiding our thoughts

Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire during a pandemic. Instead of reacting out of panic or despair, he remained composed and responded with rational solutions to mitigate the crisis. His leadership stabilized the empire, preserved social order and saved countless lives.

Viktor Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response.” Wisdom begins in that space. Today’s leaders, like Aurelius, can either react or respond to the stimulus of rapid technological change.

Wisdom starts by pausing to recognize the stimulus and the potential reactions it might provoke in our stakeholders, organizations and ourselves; it leads us to evaluate the long-term consequences of different courses of action and presents us with the opportunity to respond rather than react.

Temperance—Guiding our decisions

Every organization wants something. What we value determines how we make decisions when faced with stimuli. Our values guide our potential reactions.

Reaction is based on impulse, and it doesn’t require thought; it is automatic, natural and easy. This ease can lead us to believe that our reactions are the right actions due to the ease-of-processing bias. However, more often than not, our reactions lead us to one of two extremes: deficiency or excess.

Consider the organization that highly values security and stability. When faced with a stimulus like major technological advancement— these values might cause leadership to fear disruption that could threaten the status quo. Out of this fear, leadership resists adoption to maximize comfort. While they honor their values and maintain comfort, their reaction leads to deficiency by stunting their own growth.

On the other hand, consider the organization that highly values being perceived as the industry leader. When faced with the same stimulus, their values might cause leadership to adopt new technologies before developing a plan to protect employee jobs. While they honor their values and achieve primacy, their reaction leads to excess because they priortize success at the cost of people and their well-being.

This is why temperance (also known as self-control) is critical for leaders. Aristotle refers to temperance as the “golden mean,” and explains that “the good” is found firmly in the middle between deficiency and excess. Without wisdom, we are subject to value-driven reactions, and our reactions can never lead us to decisions apart from these two extremes. The only way leaders can make effective decisions that balance innovation and empathy is by exhibiting temperance to actively resist reacting to stimuli and instead respond to the information and insights provided by wisdom.

Courage—Guiding our intentions

Our natural inclination when faced with stimuli is to react toward the extreme. However, when we exercise wisdom and temperance to respond differently from our natural inclination, we often encounter opposition and pressure. The only way to overcome these external forces is with courage.

In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus. Her refusal was a deliberate act of resistance against the systemic racial injustice of her time. Despite the potential for arrest, societal backlash and personal risk, she demonstrated profound courage and persisted in the long struggle for civil rights.

Courage requires us to persist and resist in the face of difficulty. Leaders aim to create organizations that are both innovative and empathetic must be willing, ready and able to tackle these challenges head-on. Amid technological change, leadership is not just about keeping up with innovation; it’s about ensuring that our advancements honor the essence of why we innovate: to serve and uplift people. 

Although fear and avoidance may be tempting as shields against the unknown, they ultimately limit our organizations’ capacity to serve. Conversely, unchecked excitement and haste in adopting new technologies can damage our organizations and lead us astray, causing us to forget that the purpose of technology is to enhance, not diminish, the human experience. Courage empowers us to choose a third option—one that isn’t easy, but embraces innovation and champions the well-being of people.

Justice—Guiding our actions

Of all the guiding principles, justice is the most important. “After all, how impressive is courage if it’s only about self-interest? What good is wisdom if not put to use for the whole world?” justice goes beyond mere compliance with the law; it encompasses every interaction and obligation we have towards others. Acting justly means prioritizing and valuing others.

Cicero, the Roman philosopher who influenced the ideas of figures like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once said, “Men are induced to injure others in order to obtain what they covet.” In other words, people tend to pursue their own desires at the expense of others. This tendency is at the heart of injustice, and we act unjustly when people are not our primary value.

How does this connect? In a survey by ResumeBuilder, 37 percent of companies using AI say technology has replaced workers in the past year and 44 percent of companies surveyed say AI will lead to layoffs in 2024. Whether due to increased efficiency, reduced expenses, greater profit margins or some other value, many organizations today are adopting technology in a way that injures people. 

We often refer to this as the “cost of doing business,” a necessary evil, or the price of progress. However, these are merely euphemisms for what is happening: organizations committing acts of injustice. This may seem like an extreme statement, but it aligns with the true measure of justice. Any action that inflicts harm or injures another person is, by definition, unjust.

Organizational leaders today have a responsibility to adopt and utilize technology in a way that serves people when leveraged properly. They also have a responsibility to ensure this adoption and use does not harm their employees. Marcus Aurelius stated, “What injures the hive injures the bee.” Organizations do not exist in isolation; they are composed of individuals who are part of communities, which in turn make up the world. Actions that affect a few ultimately impact the many.

Practical application

As we grapple with the evolution of the modern workplace, the choices we make today will define the future of our organizations. By understanding the purpose of technology and committing to the guiding principles of wisdom, temperance, courage and justice, leaders can nurture technologically advanced and deeply human workplaces. Here are some actionable recommendations consider:

  1. Develop an employee upskilling/reskilling program. Prioritize investing resources in preparing your workforce for changes to their roles before adopting new technology. If roles will become obsolete, have a plan for retraining and reallocating people rather than eliminating them.
  2. Introduce AI to the workforce through powering learning experiences. Help employees develop comfort and fluency with AI and new technology by using it to enhance their learning experiences.
  3. Reassess your organizational vision, mission and values. Regularly update your core commitments to prioritize people and their well-being. 
  4. Establish an ethical technology use committee. Create a cross-functional team responsible for assessing the ethical implications of new technologies before adoption and developing plans for their ethical use.
  5. Foster a culture of openness and transparency. Regularly communicate with employees and stakeholders about technological changes, explaining the reasons them and how they align with the organization’s commitment to caring for others. Create channels for employees to voice their concerns and suggestions, ensuring they feel heard and valued.