Skip to main content
real conversations

Corporate empathy and the metaverse

Real Conversations podcast | S4 E14 | October 13, 2022


Mimi Nicklin


Mimi Nicklin is the Creative CEO and Founder of inclusive creative agency Freedm, a leading empathy expert, and best-selling author of Softening The Edge.

Many people think of empathy as an emotion. But Mimi Nicklin, author of Softening the Edge, explains it’s a skill.  What’s more, using it correctly will be critical for the future generations and the development of the metaverse.  

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

Michael Hainsworth: Organizational empathy is more than just a 21st century corporate buzzword. It's a perspective that leads to healthier employees and higher profits. To Mimi Nicklin, the author of Softening the Edge, empathy is humanity's oldest leadership trait. Our world of work though is changing as the Metaverse gains traction in a post-COVID world of work from home and work from anywhere. So, can we build a virtual world that's more empathetic? Nicklin says yes, but we must begin by building organizational empathy outside the Metaverse.

Mimi Nicklin: Organizational empathy is fundamentally the ability to improve our understanding of others within an organization. We're talking about perspective taking, we're talking about being able to put ourselves into the context, or the shoes of others, in order to understand the world, the business world, as they see it.

MH: I don't know. Cynical workers, and I don't know if I'm one of them, but would kind of doubt such a thing really exists.

MN: I think you are right. I think there are many doubters out there. But we are very lucky, Michael, that has changed in recent years. And when you look at the amount of evidence out there pointing towards increased empathy and the impact of that on our organizations, that is changing. And I have to say of all the speaking and talking that I do around the world, I very rarely come up against people that aren't convinced by the time I finished presenting that evidence. I think those naysayers are perhaps now in the minority.

MH: Tell me about convincing those naysayers. Because Steve Jobs was a garbage can kicking boss and then raised a generation of leaders to believe that being a hard ass was the key to success. How do you convince people that empathetic employers are more successful employers?

MN: Well, I tend to always verge on the side of data. I think in the end ... I mean, there's very little data out there that doesn't support a more empathetic, emotionally engaged, arguably psychologically safe environment. Empathy is something that is built into the prefrontal cortex. This is something we are born with. It's an evolutionary skill set. So fundamentally for human beings to do their best, for them to be able to perform at optimal levels, for us to be able to thrive versus simply survive, these are needs human beings have. We have to be understood. We need to be seen and heard in order to perform at sort of peak performance levels.

So fundamentally I go straight back to the data, and there's much of it. There's data that connects higher levels of empathy with output, with productivity, with performance, with softer indicators such as levels of motivation, engagement, teamwork. We also see it impacting areas such as morale, absenteeism, and tenure in businesses. There's plenty of data, Michael. When I do come up against those people out there that aren't quite sure about this, we always go back to what the evidence shows and all of it points in a very positive direction.

MH: You've said that empathy is not an emotional skill set. Why not?

MN: Empathy isn't an emotion. In fact, empathy is a skill set. It is an ability that we have. There are many emotional skills that we can use in the workplace. And people would often ask me, for example, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy, as an example, is an emotion. It is something you feel. It's pity. It's an emotion you feel for others. Empathy is the ability to understand another, to perspective take to put yourself in their shoes. That is a skill set. Not only is that not an emotional skill set, but it's not a soft skill, which is also something I spend a lot of my time debating sort of out there in the world and arguing that empathy is not only hard to find and hard to master, but incredibly hard to maintain. This is a skillset that we can teach, train, and improve on in organizations everywhere.

MH: Tell me about your thoughts on the ‘Great Resignation’?

MN: The Great Resignation. I feel like I speak about this all the time, because it really is impacting so many businesses well beyond sort of the markets where we hear so much about this, predominantly Europe and the USA. My take on the Great Resignation is that fundamentally the world has changed and shifted, obviously, in the last three years. And people have a very clear definition of what freedom and what ... How should I put this? Freedom and expectation of life quality now is. And I think for many decades we have really grappled with what work-life balance is. And we could never master it, but we could never escape its woes.

And I think now people have a very clear expectation of what they want from their life, and they've really been through this experience that has allowed them to realize so little is in control. We used to think, pre-COVID, that everything was in our control. And then the world changed, and we realized we have little control over anything, but what we do have the power to do is decide where we spend our waking hours and what we will and won't stand for. The Great Resignation for me is predominantly a response of the human being to pressure and to freedom and to finding a way to stand up for themselves and say this is what I will and won't accept.

MH: What do you see as some of the key triggers that have led to the Great Resignation?

MN: I think one of the discussions we're seeing a lot of right now is this hybrid or remote working, and whether it works, whether it's here to stay. Fundamentally, I'm seeing people all around the world, predominantly again, US and Europe who are beginning to say, okay, we're done. Home working is no more. We are banning it, or we are postponing it. These types of behaviors is what's creating havoc with employee engagement and employee relationships with their senior leaders. A lack of understanding means that people feel that they're not seen, they're not heard, they don't matter. There's also a huge issue with authenticity in the workplace. And certainly, the younger generations are extremely clear. They can, we say in England, I hope you sort of recognize the phrase, but we say that you can smell a rat, that you know when something is pretend or fake or inauthentic. That generation just won't stand for it. This respect, this reflex to those environments is seeing people make these decisions and vote with their feet.

MH: And with fear of this turning into what's wrong with the kids today type of conversation. You mentioned younger employees, do millennials vote with their feet more than other generations? I'm a member of Generation-X. We were called "slackers". I think we were sort of the original ‘Quiet Quitter’ generation.

MN: Yeah, I'm not sure that they vote with their feet any more than other generations in life in general. But what I do think is they have less fear. They have less fear, and they have less expectation of staying in one place for a long time. And that is partly because of the parenting style that they have grown up underneath. They feel very confident in their rights, in their own decision making. They were sort of brought up by a set of parents that have taught them that they can have anything and be anything and do anything, and therefore they're far more confident in making those decisions than perhaps we were. Equally, the world is very small and information travels very far. Choice and flexibility are suddenly at our fingertips. I don't think we can call them slackers per se, Michael, but I do think we can call them brave. I think whether that braveness is sometimes perhaps misguided, that would be up for debate. But they’re confident in their choices.

MH: Yeah. Your point about information is well received. We often talk about why the hippie generation, the Boomers weren't able to change the world the way they wanted to back in the 1960s, but the millennial generation feels that they can elicit significant change. And one of the big reasons for that difference is that there wasn't a global connected internet back in the 1960s to rally global support for any given cause.

MN: Absolutely. And I think that's really, poignant. But I also think that, to your point, but slightly extending that, it's the generation below the millennials. I'm a millennial, it's the generation below us that are really going to change the world. When they look at us, at the millennials, probably even more so than the generation above us, because they just think, "You're old." For them they're like, "Those guys are done."

MH: Thanks!

MN: I'm sorry, but it's true. These kids are 20 years old, anything over 30 year is old.

MH: Right.

MN: They look at us, the people that are today between 30 and 40, and just think we've ruined everything. They have very little respect for what we've done, and they're not wrong in many ways. So that young generation, they do have people power. They do have connectivity on their side. But they've also grown up consuming, and they've grown up in an incredibly tumultuous world. They've grown up watching all of this unfold. We didn't used to know all of that. I mean, when I think of big global events, I remember even something like September 11, I was 18 at that time and I had to watch that, I was traveling at the time, but I watched it on a very small TV. And it's not like today when you absorb content, it's surround sound multimedia, every touchpoint, it's a sensorial explosion.

Therefore the impact to respond, the desire to do something to fix is far more overwhelming than perhaps when we were growing up and things were far more fragmented. I definitely think that that explosion of information and connectivity has created this sense of, like you said, being able to do anything and being able to actually make that progress that they want to see in the world. And they're not going to stop, they're definitely on a mission and they're pretty, as I said earlier, confident about their ability to do it better than us.

MH: Let's extend this conversation about the role that communication technology plays in helping rally a generation and give them a sense of focus and a sense of purpose with this corporate empathy component. Because the metaverse is a significant conversation taking place right now, we are building it as we speak. Will the metaverse sort of extend this generational sense of control, and what role does corporate empathy play in building this next generation internet?

MN: It's a really big question, Michael, because there are so many sorts of unsure answers. There are so many open-ended questions about what will happen to empathy and our ability to understand each other and connect with each other in a world that's not real and yet it's real. What we know from the data, what we know from the learnings to date is that we can, number one, create empathy in a virtual world. That has been proven for sure. Particularly when they've tested it in areas such as homelessness, domestic violence, areas where they've wanted to increase empathy in certain groups of people, and they've been able to use the virtual world in order to change their levels of empathy and understanding of someone other than them. Because of course that's what we are talking about, right? We're talking about the ability to a certain extent to use your imagination to see where someone else is coming from or what they're experiencing.

We do know that empathy can be increased and improved upon in a virtual world. However, we also know that when people are living in a virtual world, they are often seen to behave in a way that is unlike the way they perform or behave in the real world. And a lot of that is driven by how they look, by their avatar or their virtual human, in that world. The stereotypes, these sort of unconscious biases that we all have and have to accept because that's just who we are as members of society, they impact and reflect upon how we behave in those virtual worlds based on how we see ourselves created as that virtual human. And again, that will change the way we are likely to behave.

For example, as a woman, if I had an avatar in the virtual world, that was an extremely strong, tall, bold man, I may behave differently as that male strong, tall, huge character than I would in the real world of, you can't see me today in this interview, but a relatively small, petite woman. We do know that those sorts of cues and the physicality of those avatars changes how we behave. So that's why I say it's a very open-ended question because we've never seen, obviously, as you said, we're building it as we speak, what that expansion means to people. There is huge potential for good. There is huge potential for good. There is huge potential to fix some of the woes in society, to increase our understanding of each other, to help us connect with others unlike us in that virtual world. With people we would never otherwise come across in our day to day and often geographically grounded lives.

But as I said, there is still some concern over the sort of impact to our actions and how that can impact your empathy, because you can throw actions, words, or behaviors out there in the virtual world with often very little sort of impact on you as a human being in the real world. And of course, that is an issue with the empathy deficit worldwide already. I'm chatting on and on, because I'm so passionate about this, but as I said, it's very open-ended area and one can hope that the people that are designing the Metaverse are doing that with the ethics and the direction that's necessary. Because that responsible design is going to be a critical lever in whether this works or not in terms of supporting empathy or increasing empathy.

MH: Well Meta's social VR platform Horizons now includes features like a four-foot personal boundary between avatars that are unknown to each other. How do we address body language in the metaverse?

MN: It's something that people have started to look at and research. Some of the recent data I've seen has been around the understanding of pain in the metaverse, and micro human behaviors or pieces of body language, as you say. Things like eyebrows raising, noses crinkling, frowning, smiling, of course. But signals of pain or discomfort and how other avatars or virtual humans respond to that. As I said, the design of these characters, the design of body language is an area that has to be managed very responsibly because we do know in the early research that people will respond and behave differently based on those micro movements.

And that is evolutionary. So much of that is subconscious. And that's quite exciting to know that even in the virtual world, as human beings, as part of that, we are able to recognize and respond to those micro moments of body language. Things like having open shoulders, open palms. As I said, smiling, frowning, yawning. We've seen that yawning, which is the use of mirror neurons, is also applicable and active in the metaverse. All of these areas can be replicated. I think the only thing that you can't replicate is obviously the sense of touch, but who knows where we'll be in a ... I don't know, in an 8G world one day, maybe we'll even be able to have the sense of touch.

MH: Right, that whole Ready Player One experience with the full body haptic suit and things like that.

MN: Exactly.

MH: Which brings up an interesting point about the role that the actual technology is going to play in ensuring that we create an empathetic metaverse. The next generation VR headsets have cameras pointed inward at the face so that you can tell when someone blinks, when they raise their eyebrows, when they're smiling, and be able to replicate that sort of thing. If building the metaverse gives us an opportunity to right systemic wrongs in systems in societies, what special considerations do we need to include when building an empathetic metaverse?

MN: Again, these are massive social questions. Because when we talk about the woes of society that we see in a low empathy world, these are extremely serious, far reaching, and damaging areas. So, when we look at low levels of empathy, we see high levels of all of the isms out there in the world, whether that's racism, sexism, ageism, any ism, right? Anywhere that there is a gap, that there is a segregation between humans. And that as I touched on earlier is obviously deeply impacted by stereotypes or by learned behavior. In designing and building the metaverse for the future, one would hope that we are able to overcome some of those learned behaviors and stereotypes in order to reconnect in the virtual world, perhaps in ways that we can't in the real world.

I mentioned earlier, I touched on sort of a geographical groundedness. And this is a theme that I find myself talking about and really unpacking more and more. Because when you talk about diversity and inclusion in the workplace, one of the things that I'm really interested in at the moment is can we ever drive true inclusion and diversity in a remote working-less world? If we go back to only in office working, because people are saying we need to go back and that's how it should be, how are we at the same time going to drive up inclusivity and diversity if we only ever can work with people in our same geographical post code, zip code area, right? Because of course you can look at different skin colors and backgrounds and those types of things, but true inclusivity and diversity would mean going beyond those borders of the area that you are working and recruiting and hiring in.

And with that in mind, the metaverse has a great opportunity, right? Because you are able to connect people, to reflect behavior, to show people the lives of others, the realities of others in areas of the world, culture, religion, that they otherwise would never be able to engage with. Empathy is a skill. It is something that you learn and practice. And in that way, the metaverse has this great opportunity to allow people to practice empathy more often in environments that they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. I think that there are spaces there to really, as you said, sort of fill in some of these social chasms that we have around us. But as I touched on earlier, the design of these things has to be done really very carefully, because it's a very thin line between kind of acceptance and the opposite. Lots of potential, but needs careful management, I'd say.

MH: Are you confident the metaverse will make us more empathetic?

MN: No, I'm not. I have to be honest. I think it definitely can. I'm confident that the opportunity is there. I'm confident that there's huge potential for us to do so. But am I totally confident that the world we're creating it in is ready to do so? I would say probably not yet. I think things are so tumultuous, and people are living on such edge, and that's partly post-pandemic, but in many other ways, economic, social, political collapse. We have wars going on in Europe, cost of living through the roof. As I said earlier, all of these isms are rife through society. That one could argue in many ways, we've gone back in terms of integration and inclusion.

And to be creating the metaverse at this time means that people, the humans that are creating this, are doing so under incredible pressure, depression, in many times. We have nearly 400 million people with depression. And stress in the environment. As I said, am I confident it can be used for the greater good? Absolutely. It can create more empathy. But am I yet totally convinced that we're going to do it? I'm not sure. I think we need a little bit more stability in our world before we perhaps start creating a brand new one.

MH: So, it's incumbent upon those in the technology space creating this next generation internet to include empathy into the plan from day one?

MN: I think so. I think it has to be part of how we are built. As I said, how we are building a new world while still figuring out the current one. We have nearly 50% less empathy today than we did three decades ago. And if we have a chance of recreating and building that in a second world, as it were, it needs to be at the top of the agenda to put those emotions and connections at the forefront of what this metaverse is going to offer us.

<< Go to previous episode