Empathy eats culture for breakfast

How reinventing the way we organise is the main challenge of our times

This article by Marco Candi is being featured as part of Flux Publishing’s Organisations To Organisms series

Peter Drucker, whose famous quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, inspired this article’s title. Photo credit: Drucker School of Management

Introduction to the journey

When I first thought about working on an academic paper, I will be honest that not the best things in the world came to my mind. What was unimaginable before, this journey ended up been one of the most valuable experiences of my life.

After all the talk of “innovation being essential in a rapidly changing world”, that I have heard from many industry leaders that came to share their ideas on our masters programme at Hyper Island. I’ve decided to pursue, for four months, the question of how we can bring innovation to traditional organizations. This question fascinates me because, working at my traditional family-owned company since the start of my career, now I have access to unique information from the most innovative organisations and people in the world. Therefore I decided to test my learnings in my family’s company, by designing a transformational path that the firm could be inspired from.

Reinventing organizations

The book that inspired my journey.

On this journey, across the world and through the subways of New York City, I’ve carried this book with me. Apiece of work that I’ve used as the foundation for this project: Frederic Laloux’s ‘Reinventing Organizations’.

In his book, Laloux, through three years of in-depth research into human and organizational consciousness, developed a theory that says after every stage of human consciousness, human beings have organized themselves in a different and superior manner. What people value and what drives them, also changes in each stage of development. For example, people in tribal societies are driven by creating safety for the survival of the tribe, which is distinctly different from a stock broker in today’s market society, who is motivated by the desire for success and to win the game. After discussing why we are entering a new stage of consciousness, Laloux presents three breakthroughs that can bring organizations to a new awareness. This awareness will create more humane places to work where people feel engaged, whole and fulfilled, and consequently innovation will flourish in a natural manner.

“We yearn for more, for radically better ways to be in organizations. But is that genuinely possible, or mere wish full thinking? If it turns out that it is possible to create organisations that draw out more of our human potential, then what do such organisations look like? how do we bring them to life?”

Those questions are at the heart of his book, and beyond its academic appearance, these doubts are been asked for many genuine leaders who understand that the world is drastically changing and the way we organize today is already at its limits. In global terms, as consequences of the edge of our organizations (illustrated in the book), we see manifesting themselves practically: climate change for instance as a protagonist of the dances we’ve been coordinating. Likewise, at the human level, the widespread lack of motivation observed in many companies, is another devastating side effect. Considering the results of a 2012 survey conducted by Towers Watson, a human resources consulting firm, shows that from 32,000 workers in the corporate sector in 29 countries, 43% are actively disengaged and another 22% feel unsupported.

The challenge of innovation

Through this research I have designed a solution to the challenges that my family-owned company faces. To ensure that the solution is as effective and genuine as possible, I’ve researched and co-designed that solution with the company’s coworkers.

Mine is a family company that has been passed down from generation to generation. The design of this project reaches beyond the academic, and indeed takes approach from the heart. This turned the journey into an entirely genuine one, that was exciting for me and those who I collaborated with.

Using what I call heart design, based on design thinking principles, eight members of my company’s workforce, representing diverse positions within the organization, were individually consulted. These consultations involved interviews that posed the same questions and generated both identical and divergent interpretations, which would represent different perspectives.

After gathering insight from those interviews, thinking pragmatically about the research, it was clear that there was a cultural challenge permeating the company (by culture we mean internal beliefs, external behaviours and processes and practices). All the interviewees recognised a lack of communication between departments. One team member said:

“Now today what I would change is the communication between teams. A lot of work comes to us, and we have to solve it for yesterday, it is always urgent urgent, very urgent.”

This illustrates the point of view I saw in all of the interviews. Therefore, hoping to dig deeply into the challenge, I used the 5 Whys methodology, which I also use in my personal life, asking why five times to get deep into my problems. And then I started a dialogue with myself, always based on the interview insights.

  • Why there is a lack of communication in the company? — I first asked to myself, easily answering — because teams don’t interact.
  • Why teams in the company don’t interact? Because of the culture of the enterprise.
  • Why the culture of the organization don’t facilitate the communication between teams? Because is not a culture of trust.
  • Why is not a culture of trust? Because teams don’t empathise with each other

Empathise!! Empathy, the great and rare attribute of looking to the world with others eyes. The virtue, which in its presence in the way we organize, can support a community in flourishing creativity, transparency, and innovation.

Kathryn Pavlovich and Keiko Krahnke in their 2012 article Empathy, Connectedness and Organization’ say:

“Empathy enables people to suspend judgment and to comprehend paradigmatic differences to foster more enlightened relationships. That, in turn, creates more humanitarian, interactive and creative environments.”

The safety blanket

By observing this disparity within the company, advice was sought from five experienced industry leaders to further illuminate the challenges and solutions to cultural change within what was identified as a “traditional” organisation.

Looking for an answer on how to bring empathy to traditional businesses, I ran into another challenge. The experiences of the leaders I interviewed showed a common challenge in bringing innovation to workplaces. Insecurity. Insecurity about change. Insecurity in three dimensions:

  1. Of professional practices: the insecurity of questioning why practices are the way they are. This is usually translated in fear of failure, which prevents people from even trying to modify things and instead supporting the maintenance of the status quo.
  2. Of status: Change comes with the cost of change itself. Something a senior leader, for instance, has long been used to, might be gone. This is scary because it can represent a threat to their power. (Uber vs Taxis, Airbnb vs Hotels, etc). Is difficult to think that the way “I’ve always made money” can change.
  3. Of people’s deepest selves, their identity. We are unable to change if we cannot find ourselves in a new version of the world. A change can only occur if we deeply identify our inner selves in this new scenario.

Designing a solution

Industry leaders from three different continents, by sharing their personal experiences, helped me to develop a solution for both the cultural problem of lack of empathy and on how to implement this solution not taking for granted the insecurity of change. The solution for my family organization has the legitimate purpose of inspiring other organizations on creating, innovative, whole and trustful communities. And consisted of three parts.

  1. A different way to organize
  2. A people driven solution
  3. Prototyping a tangible solution for the company

1. A different way to organize

In the first part, industry leaders discussed with me the importance of involving senior leadership into the process of change. If top leadership supports and believes in the change process, the transformation is likely to be more successful. This is quite obvious at first, if the ones who control the organization, its practices, behaviors, and so on, are not interested and invested in the change process, than who is going to be? Knowing that, I studied deeper on the industry leaders insights and understood that:

Support from senior people is not enough to unfold transformational success. There is one more aspect, which needs to be added into this equation, that is distributed leadership. Parker Palmer in his inspiring book, ‘Let your Life Speak’ when discussing leadership, introduce the story of Havel, one of the main leaders of the Czech revolution. In Palmer’s words,

“For Havel, the power of authentic leadership is not found in external arrangements, but in the human heart, authentic leaders in every setting, from families to nation-states aim at liberating the heart, their own and others, so its powers can liberate the world.”

Consequently, the “support” that industry leaders needed in their experience in the field, to evoke long-lasting change in organizations, was from genuine life-affirming leaders, who seek novel processes and practices with the objective of inspiring people in their community to achieve their full potential and create a sustainable change together. Seeing everyone as leaders who can touch people’s heart and unfold their full creative potential.

Subsequently, to enable the distributed leadership to unfold, a new way of people organizing themselves is required. Therefore self-management was presented as being more efficient than a hierarchical architecture.

“Traditional pyramidal structures demand too much of too few and not enough of everyone else.” 
- Gary Hamel, quoted in Reinventing Organizations

Various traditional organisations uses hierarchical approaches in the pursuit of two main objectives, which are translated in management processes to define goals (predict) and follow-up (control). In the research, regarding the two objectives of hierarchies in predicting and controlling how we organize, It was noted that, even though many support hierarchies as a strong structure in companies, this way of thinking is proven to be outdated as, today, we live in ever-changing and uncertain times, full of unpredictability, speed, and complexity. Many people are finding it harder to live, with the illusion of control through imposed social hierarchy. Knowing that this system is exhausted, innovative organizations like Zappos, Patagonia, Timberland, Starbucks, Google, Apple, and many more, are using self-management as a manner to give people inner motivation at work, by trusting on its community to take responsibility in to fundamental parts of the decision-making process.

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers say of self-management:

“Self-Organisation is not a startling new feature of the world. It is the way the world has created itself for billions of years. In all of the human activity, self-organisation is how we begin. It is what we do until we interfere with the process and try to control one another”

2. A people driven solution

At my family company, as the interviews were unfolding, it became clear that the lack of empathy in the company culture hindered novel thinking, and that the industry leaders have discussed why a solution to a cultural problem is rather complicated, reflecting on the key point of insecurity as an enormous challenge when leading a movement to drive change. Now, how can we implement processes, and practices that support the community to be self-managed and with a sense of distributed leadership, in traditional organisations

Firstly, for a sustainable transformation to be successful in any environment, where people can be confident rather than insecure about the shift process, people must be the central part of this change, by being involved in the creation process of change, and on leading it. Secondly, and most importantly, leaders need to understand that the fact that traditional companies are not innovative, does not suggest that their people are not.

In an interview with an academic journal, the renowned writer and activist Margaret Wheatley, who has devoted her life to enabling social entrepreneurs to become life-affirming leaders, supports this vision by saying:

“We have a lot of people in organizations who are working with life-destroying processes and methods. We don’t start out trying to destroy people’s creativity and contributions. But we use processes that end up destroying people’s motivation and their sense of self. Again, many people don’t even remember that they are creative or that they want to contribute to meaningful work. When they do remember, it is a very positive experience for the individual and the organization.”

In other words, throughout my project, I was blindly lead to the notion that innovation comes from the outside in. When, in fact, the innovative and creative potential is already embedded in organizations in each and every member of its community. This potential, of course, can be crushed by processes that aim to control people instead of liberating them. Yet, at the same time, throughout practices like constructive feedback sharing and the advice process, presented in this work, processes can serve as a fuel for people’s inner talents to flourish, which can be used to enlighten every organising system.

3. Prototyping a tangible solution in the company

Finally, it was argued that for an sustainable change to occur people need to be part of this transformation. Yet, in many traditional companies restrictions like time create an enormous barrier for people to be motivated and engaged in the change process. So how can we engage people to be the central part of any transformation?

From changing an organisation’s behaviour, to transforming a child’s bad habit, the answer lies in having a shared vision of where people will lead this change and the design of first steps to reach this ambitious vision. In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg, when discussing organizational transformation based on the roots habits of firms, brings a treasured insight on what small achievements can unfold.

“Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach.”

Consequently, based on the problem of empathy permeating my company’s culture. The suggestion is that, in the future the company can achieve the vision of having “a same voice” which means that every member can equally express their ideas and opinions, and take an active part in the decision-making.

As a first step to achieve this vision, I was inspired by what Bayer, a German multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company, is doing to bring innovation to its processes. As explain on their website, they created a process called “five to five”, where they create a startup inside the company. However, this is not a startup formed from people from outside the company, no. They gather five employees from different parts of the world, from the USA, Singapore, Germany, Brazil and France. These people receive a challenge. For example, the last challenge was that they had a problem in the logistic process of delivering products from Switzerland to Brazil. So these five people, for five weeks, need to develop prototypes to solve this challenge, and then the company will invest money in the best prototypes.

Inspired by Bayer’s solution of bringing innovation from the inside into their processes, by creating a creative environment. As a first step for my firm, together with the members of my company, I created a development program. The creation of this program was possible because of the various workshops prototyped with the members of my organization, who helped me in its inception, as well as the feedback I got from industry leaders.

I explain the process in full detail in my Medium post: How to bring change from within an Organisation?

Also, the entire project can be found on its website www.naself.org. It would be an honour to have your feedback.


In conclusion, the Johari Window represented in this picture, shows the four parts of our human consciousness. The last one, the Unknown Self, is where the great joyfulness of life happens, where our genuine being want to exist. If we discover, at least part of our inner self, we can unfold unpredictable potentials that we have never before imagine.

Throughout this journey, I’ve identified empathy as the main cultural issue at my company. Yet, just when the other parts of the project were developing, a realisation occurred that the issue was not exactly what it seemed to be. So, after collecting additional information, it was noted that the challenge was relevant, yet it needed to be tackled from a different perspective. The problem of empathy, after all, was not between people, yet within them. Creating self-empathy, or self-awareness (as we generally call it) was deemed the most effective way to change a cultural problem.

We as leaders need to help people to understand who they are, including their potential and limitations, in a team and business context, and making sure that they see themselves as leaders in their lives and in the organization where they work as self-managed people, by taking an active part in decision-making.

The source of change and growth for an organisation is to develop increased awareness of what it is now. If organizations invest more of their time and energy in the self-awareness of its people, a new human consciousness may emerge, where people are more motivated and can serve the world, through their organisations, in a purposeful manner.

In the words of Simon Sinek, a visionary thinker with a rare intellect, who teaches leaders and organizations how to inspire people:

“Now, it is the responsibility of the current generation of leaders to find the right strategies that work for today, and those strategies tend to be more human because we know that companies are suffering from engagement issues. We know that trust and cooperation are luxuries inside a company nowadays. At the end of the day, there is a decline in innovation — which the Economist has covered quite extensively — around the world. Who comes up with all the ideas? People. And if a person does not feel like he or she is an integral, valued part of an organization… and is unwilling to offer blood, sweat, and tears to advance some kind of cause, then, by their very nature, all the strategies that are employed are short term. I, for one, know that there is an appetite — at best, for ideological reasons, and at worst, because the old systems just do not work anymore — for new ideas to emerge.” 
- Simon Sinek, ‘Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Beyond This Project

The last part of this work consists of the prototype, test and improvement of a viable and feasible way to address cultural challenges — a development program where people will come together in a creative environment to learn and drive change from within the organization.

Today, Starbucks has the largest company learning program in the world — a program that teaches employees how to control and improve their willpower. According to the Charles Duhigg’s ‘The Power of Habit’, Starbucks is responsible for a great part of the education in the US, as they have more than 7,000 stores. Furthermore, their development program is arguably the main factor of the company’s undeniable success. Due to the rapid change taking place in the world, Starbucks and many other organizations will have to adapt and introduce new organizational designs supported by development programs — programs that are similar to the solution proposed in this report. Therefore, the solution can have a long-lasting impact in the world.

Consequently, the next steps are to test and improve this solution in as many organizations as possible, and also inspire others to do so, creating a community of people who will do the impossible to drive this change and inspire organizations to unlock their true community-based selves. As Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

As we explore our organisations opportunities, life is calling us to experiment and change. We might discover some bold and yet untouched solution. When we do, we can feel pleased, yet not for long. The world moves on, the world does not stay attached to a particular way of been, nether to a particular invention. Reinventing the way we organise is the main challenge of our times. “No organization, however large, is big enough to hold even one human soul.” Poet David White.

I would be delighted to know your thoughts about my work on redesigning organizations. Let us continue this conversation.

Marco Candi

“Empathy eats culture for breakfast” by Marco Candi is being featured as part of Flux Publishing’s Organisations To Organisms series.

Like what you read? Give Marco Candi a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.