How Do You Teach an Entire Country Emotional Intelligence Skills (Starting with Empathy)?

By Ed Kang - Cofounder of YouEQ

At the end of this month, I will be hosting and presenting at the annual ISODC China (International Society for Organization Development and Change) conference in Beijing. This will be my third ISODC China conference as a host and presenter. It is always an honour to be invited to participate at a national level helping organizations with development and change. I’ve been able to meet and build relationships with managers from organizations of all industries and sizes, from Fortune 500 to the scrappy startup that just landed seed funding.

This year, apart from my hosting duties, I‘ve been asked to present the competencies required to become a successful OD practitioner as part of my work with Global Synergy University. At this point I understand that, by default, everybody will be expecting me to present technical competencies, which I will. But I plan to add a couple more key competencies that I think are critical for China, especially in the current sociopolitical climate.

The opportunity for me is to affect senior managers at some of the most influential organizations in the country. If these companies begin to experience success with new approaches and tools, other organizations will follow. I don’t take this lightly. If we can change the leader, we change the organization which eventually will change an entire country.

Chinese Potential

Let me start by sharing how much potential I see in China. This has nothing to do with politics or economics, but the Chinese people. What has impressed me more about China than any other country is how loyal people are when they make a commitment to each other. I am used to Canadian culture where we are friendly and polite but never that intimate. Maybe it’s just me and my high level of independence and introversion but this was new for me. In China, when someone makes you a partner, you are bonded beyond business. And the potential of that bond is ginormous.

There is a connectivity here between people that cannot be replicated in any other country. Innovation in China is different than the rest of the world because of what are called “network effects.” When the right bonds are formed, Chinese will out-hustle anybody and reach a massive audience. I mean it because I have seen it. The rest of the world could and should learn a lot from China in this regard.

The Emotional Intelligence Skill We Need (but May Not Deserve)

Because of the potential, what’s on my heart right now for China is the emotional intelligence skill of empathy. China is in desperate need of this and I have been very upfront about it. I’ve discussed the perceived lack of empathy in China with friends and colleagues at length in an attempt to understand the culture and roots. The fact is, empathy is never taught at any time during grade school or university and therefore, never valued. There might be exceptions, but I hear more about harmony (what little I do hear) as an espoused value over empathy.

My friend and colleague John explains it the best by using the term “survivalism”. In China, competition is so dense and fierce that survival is the only thing people are taught. Anything that does not contribute to survival is considered a luxury or de-prioritized. And this includes empathy.

Let me say that the Chinese I’ve met are very capable of empathy. At the very least, they practice a cognitive level of empathy where they can intellectually imagine what another person is experiencing. But empathy is a skill that must be taught and practiced in the context of emotional intelligence. And in China, it is very difficult to become proficient in a skill that asks you to put yourself in another’s shoes, when you are oppressed by other who are trying get ahead, climb the corporate ladder, or manipulate you for self-serving purpose.

This is where my heart often breaks for what I see the average Chinese worker experience. It makes me appreciate things and have the utmost gratitude for the freedoms and opportunities I have in North America. I also admit that I can have a hard time extending empathy to individuals who have the power in a country where the power-distance spectrum is so polarized.

The Golden Rule is Different in China

The Golden Rule is:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

And it makes sense the Golden Rule is all about empathy. But this not the way the Golden Rule works in China because of power-distance. It’s more like:

The one who has the gold, makes the rules.

The danger with the “Golden Rule of Power-Distance” is that it creates a secondary rule in people’s minds that goes like this:

Do unto other before they get the chance to do it unto you.

This is where people can seem so undeserving of empathy. While I have enjoyed positive relationships, the number of times people have taken advantage of my trust has been numerous. I can say it has hardened me. But I remind myself that everybody deserves empathy, especially if they are only acting out of the pure emotional impulse to survive. When our brains are in survival mode, we are driven by fear. The brain goes into a mode where we only operate blindly based on what we don’t know we don’t know.

So, my ego aside, I take up the challenge of being a champion for empathy. But the problem is, if people don’t value empathy, what would motivate them to learn about it? This is where I’m going to couch empathy in three ways that my Chinese audience should embrace.

Technical + Self + Social Competence

I intend to present the argument that all competencies can be broken down into three dimensions: Technical, Self and Social.

Technical competence is about theory and practice combined for practical action and results. In organization development, we teach our students 70 technical skills to generate measurable outcomes. Nobody will argue that technical skills aren’t important. They are the foundation.

Self competence is what we refer to when we say, “Hire for attitude and train for skill.” Skills are easy to train, but attitude is definitely not. The right attitude comes from a host of self competence skills such as self-awareness (also very rare in China), self-regulation and motivation which are all emotional intelligence-based. Half of EQ is about self competence which can also be seen as how we lead ourselves.

Social competence is the other half of EQ. This is where interpersonal soft-skills like influence, communication and conflict management come in. Whether we are in B2B or B2C, the bottom line is all of us are in the H2H (Human to Human) business. This is the competence we use to lead others.

Here is how these three come together.

Without technical competence, we don’t know what to do. But while technical competence may help us get the job, self competence will help us keep the job because a bad attitude will get you fired faster than anything. And finally, after self competence helps us keep the job, social competence will get us promoted to new jobs as leaders.

I’m certain that this will all sound very motivational to the Chinese conference crowd.

Weaving in the Empathy

This is where I’m going to look for my opportunity. During my presentation, I’m going to introduce the concept of VUCA which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. I’m going to explain how VUCA affects how we approach technical, self and social competence.

First, we must all be prepared to learn, unlearn and relearn in response to the accelerated disruptions in the VUCA operating environment. Right now, Chinese companies are having to respond to VUCA market conditions and all stakeholders, from investors, managers to front line staff, are rightfully scared. This is where self competence comes in.

Self competence allows us to personally navigate VUCA in our own lives. Self competence gives us courage and confidence when things get emotionally volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Finally, we must recognize that people, by nature, can be volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. This is the reason for honing our social competence. We’re going to need these people-skills to navigate VUCA as organizations.

Throughout all three, I plan to empathize with my audience on each level. After all, they wouldn’t even be coming to a conference on organization development and change if it wasn’t for VUCA. I will express how much I know, feel, appreciate and am moved by how they feel.

Then I plan to challenge them to the same for others and will explain this empathy is how we master technical, self and social competence. When we can respond to VUCA with empathy for others, we enhance our own competencies on all levels.

How will my Chinese audience respond? I don’t know. It’s a risk but I feel positive about taking the chance.

I’ll let you know how it goes.