WHERE CORPORATE CULTURE LIVES The Competitive Advantage of Empathy by Dr. Lucille Maddalena


Every day corporate leaders announce plans that will revolutionize their organization, move them forward and provide the environment to successfully take on more challenging work.  The process can be likened to a business owner at the turn-of-the 20th century writing his hopes and dreams for the company on paper, placing the paper in a sealed tube, and dropping the tube down a pneumatic series of pipes to reach the first floor of the building. At its destination, the paper is removed from the tube by a clerk before being passed along to the general manager who opens the document and reads the wisdom of the leader.

The question is, how do we practically implement a wonderful new vision while continuing to produce and maintain an income flow?  To be more specific, what would a General Manager, as in our example, do to respond to the message?  Precisely what should be done, who should be engaged, and how do we know when we’ve achieved our goal?

The most elaborately developed plan, finely turned strategy, or clearly stated goal faces an immoveable force that will shred the patience of even the most experienced executive. Just what is this barrier to success?  It is the company’s own culture.

As a frustrated colleague of mine once shouted in the middle of a meeting:  CULTURE EATS STRATEGY FOR LUNCH.  For the simplest or most complex plan to become reality, the message must be communicated to and embraced by mid-level managers to become part of the company culture.

In my article Why Middle Managers Matter, I offer the reader examples of how firms such as AT&T implemented grand plans to reorganize and restructure during the latter part of the 1980’s. In many of the efforts implemented by US firms, leaders found they did not invest in seeking the input and support of middle managers. As a result, existing cultural habits caused a push back,  confusing and misdirecting well-planned initiatives.

This paper will examine how mid-level managers are at the foundation of a company’s culture, and why push back occurs. It is with this level of staff and those who share an equal responsibility for the welfare of the organization that maintain the culture.  Given the importance of culture to successful achieve our strategies, it is now is the time to understand the factors that make up the organization’s culture.

Relationships are the forum

As a graduate student in the Rutgers University Department of Labor Studies I was able to work with Union Leaders at union training centers, preparing union representations to assume leadership responsibilities.  The most difficult task of those assuming the role of union rep was how it affected their personal relationships with their peers.

Considering the often-conflicting roles of union reps it is easy to envision a situation where friendships, reporting responsibilities, and personal values are questioned.  Addressing these invisible barriers and bumps to open communication requires an open forum permitting trust and mutual respect. Our world today is much more populated than when our early 1900’s business owner sent his message down a pneumatic tube. The sheer immensity of population size becomes even more amazing when we recognize how many people in this busy, fast-paced world feel lonely.

We thrive in an environment that buoys us between loneliness and isolation to connections and relationships, freely falling and rising with our dreams and hopes, as our fears and stresses. Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy writes in Work And The Loneliness Epidemic:During my years caring for patients, the most common pathology I saw was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness.”

In our private lives we recognize that it is the social contact, support networks and connections that enable us to work through a day of stress, pressure or worry.  Consider how difficult it is to cope with the many day-to-day demands without the assurance that someone ‘has our back’. 

Liz Ryan begins her article How Important Is Corporate Culture? It's Everything, by stating:

Fear and trust are the chemical currents that power every good or bad thing an organization does, but we seldom talk about them and it hurts us not to.

We pretend there are no currents. We focus on particles instead of waves. We are obsessed with numbers in cells on spreadsheets and with graphs and algorithms, while the real energy that powers your success (and without which you are going nowhere fast) has nothing to do with particles!

It is an energy wave. As leaders we need to turn our attention away from the particles that we love so much to measure, and focus on the waves instead.

Seeing the ‘waves’ requires a special lens, a view point not on the water, but on the horizon and the changing winds that fill our sails to guide our ship. An organization’s ability to be agile, to respond to internal as well as external pressures will inevitably dictate its success in our volatile business climate.

In their book The Agility Factor, the authors explain that agility “provides a way to perceive environmental threats and opportunities, test possible responses, and implement change quickly over long periods of time.”  Where does all of this information come from? It is in the minds and on the tongues of those in the field performing the tasks, on the phone interacting with clients, on the manufacturing floor responding to daily crises. To influence the company’s culture evolution, leaders must be able to encourage an environment that supports open communication up and down the chain-of-command.

Competitive Advantage of empathy

Relationships and good communication flow are just two elements of a strong organization culture. In his book Connection Culture, Michael Stallard poses that firms embracing an environment of shared identify, empathy and understanding at work realize a competitive advantage.

In a very real example a client recently expressed concern over how one of the top leaders was performing. The individual had risen to a prominent position and was known to provide answers to questions before they were expressed, shutting down the speaker and closing the door to discussion. As a result, staff from his key directors down the ladder to team members refrained from offering ideas or suggestions.  The executive became isolated and was now seen as a ‘firefighter’. 

Interviewing a cross-section of team members, I discovered that after repeatedly being told by the Exec that he knew best, they stopped informing him of any issues between staff and subcontractors or of minor production/distribution blocks.  His tardy awareness of situations too often occurred after small de-railers bloomed into full problems, demanding his full attention to put out the fire.

Repeated actions by the Exec to members of the team gains the Exec a reputation among the middle-managers whose actions and responses in turn contribute to the evolving culture of the organization. Taking the time to listen to a team member’s full story and allowing a team member to acknowledge the problem as well as present options to move forward builds a strong working relationship. Leaders who have the confidence to flip the pyramid, to employ a servant-leader approach, benefit from an environment of trust, rapport and respect with his/her team. Stallard describes the impact of showing empathy:

Mutual empathy is a powerful connection that is made possible by mirror neutrons in our brains.  Mirror neurons act like and emotional Wi-Fi system (Goleman 2006). When we feel the emotions of others, it makes them feel connected to us.

By role modeling and living these foundation elements, upper levels of management build a much stronger tie to middle-management., Stallard offers guidelines to build connections and avoid disconnections by focusing on how a firm can support all staff to develop their personal values, vision, and voice:

Vision, value, and voice are the core elements of a connection culture. The people who bring these elements to a culture and make it happen are the enablers of the connection culture model and are called committed members and servant leaders. Committed members are committed to task excellence, promoting the connection culture, and living out character strengths and virtues.  They may be senior managers, receptionists, salespeople, engineers, information technology experts, or customer service representatives. Servant leader are committed members who have the authority to coordinate task excellence, facilitate the connection culture, and model and mentor others in character strengths and virtues.

Committed Leaders

Viewing culture as ‘residing’ in the framework of middle-management presents corporate leaders with the opportunity to acknowledge the power of all staff to influence the success of the organization.  Engaging the body of the organization along with those at the top empowers members to share a vision, embrace the,  values and provide a voice in support of a connection culture. 

Committed leaders who understand they can set a course, inspire commitment and encourage contribution from all levels of the organization will share their vision, live true to their values and inspire others in the company to voice their goals. 

Change is felt as an emotional process containing both wins and losses.  By connecting with others to support their contribution we break down barriers and create an environment of caring while gaining the information to make better decisions and the agility to carry out our vision for the benefit of all. 

To connect with Lucille:

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development.

Dr. Lucille Maddalena is an Executive Coach, Leadership Trainer, and Consultant in Organization Development. 

Best known for her work supporting Senior Executives during career and business transitions, she guides the alignment of team goals with expectations by bridging interpersonal communication with practical business management. As a key part of global leadership initiatives, she has created coaching models for clients, functioning as Master Coach to identify and manage Leadership Coaches at regional sites. She has guided over 6,000 corporate executives at Fortune 100 firms to successfully advance in their careers during times of organization change.

Visit www.mtmcoach for free downloads of useful articles and publications.

She holds a Doctorate in Education with an interdisciplinary major in Human Communications and Labor Education. Working with Senior Leaders and their teams she is recognized for her commitment to build engagement and trust within all levels of the organization.

Maddalena, L. (2013) Why Middle Managers Matter
Murthy, V. (2017) Work and the Loneliness Epidemic, Harvard Business Review
Ryan, L. (2016) How Important is Corporate Culture, Forbes
Stallard, M. (2015) Connection Culture
Worley, G. (2014) The Agility Factor