Where is digitalisation taking us? Digitalisation is a tool and not a goal. Is there enough discussion regarding what we want to achieve and where the digital age should be heading? Or are we so overwhelmed by the resulting complexity and uncertainty that most of us react with either agony, fear or anger? If the latter outcome is the case, radicalisation seems to be an inevitable consequence. Or is it?
Continuing with her series of Duet interviews, Dr Caldarola, author of Big Data and Law, and Prof. Randall P. White, best-selling author of several business books and leadership expert, discuss whether empowering empathy is a solution for radicalisation and what “digital” empathy could look like. They also consider how it could be practiced in the modern era of machines, quantitative methods as well as an increasing lack of immanent human interaction due to today’s challenges which now involve working from home, having classes at home, online shopping and similar.
The world is facing two major changes: Globalisation – meaning various cultures, habits, communication skills that move us closer together – and digital revolution – meaning the increase of automation, digital devices, use and flows of data… This brings us complexity with regard to transparency, shifting power structures etc.… Is this the uncertainty you examined in your latest book Relax, It’s Only Uncertainty: Lead the way when the way is changing?
Prof. Randall P. White: That is a great question- and a fair one. When we took on the question of uncertainty in our book, we took it from any direction, coming from any place about anything.
There is an abbreviation that was introduced many years ago, called VUCA (volatile, uncertain, chaotic, ambiguous). The issue is we are living in a VUCA world that is certainly volatile and uncertain and full of chaos and a lot of manifold meanings. When Phil (Philip Hodgson) and I were first thinking of this and writing about it, we had already written a book, The Future of Leadership: Riding the Corporate Rapids Into the 21st Century, and a lot of leaders – the women and men we interviewed – talked about the uncertainty they faced when they took over a senior level position or the most senior position in an organisation. They knew they could lead and that they had certain capabilities, but they were faced with making choices on a scale, scope and level that they hadn’t faced before. Phil had noticed this in his other work, and this gave us the original idea for what we wanted to study: uncertainty. I had also researched that issue in other books, such as, Breaking The Glass Ceiling: Can Women Reach The Top Of America’s Largest Corporations?
What we noticed is that there were levels that people went through in their learning during their organisational life: At the first level – when you first supervise people – you learn that people are a problem; at mid-levels you give up on technical mastery and you are getting in an area where you experience that something is tactical and something is strategic but you have problems distinguishing which is which and you experience that people do not want you in that position because they do not want you leading them.
The toughest transition is becoming a senior executive, where you have to be strategic and say where the organisation is heading – especially in a chaotic environment. And you have to – and this is a big lesson – embrace uncertainty by running towards it, not away from it. We further understand that you as the senior executive cannot do this all by yourself; you need a team of committed individuals.
I gave you all that preamble because you are asking whether globalisation and the digital revolution are either contributing to the uncertainty or whether they are the uncertainty we are talking about. Globalisation and the digital revolution each stand separately as a source of uncertainty but also together create a whole class of uncertainty, something that over 50 years ago when a leader took over a senior position had no idea about. And now these are phenomena that a leader has to deal with. These are phenomena that bring uncertainty and the unknown that a leader by necessity has to deal with. Globalisation and digitalisation make the uncertainty faster and more complex.
The industrial revolution already created big changes with a lot of uncertainty, because daily life changed, cultures came closer because of new mobility…. And today we are facing another big revolution- we could even call it a sort of Industrial Revolution 2.0- where daily life will change again: with globalisation because different ethical perceptions move closer together and with digitalisation because automation raises the question of the role of human beings in private as well as in work life. Take, for example, the new stores of Amazon, “Amazon Go”1 , without any cashiers, where you take products registered by video and sensors off the shelves of the supermarket, put them in your shopping bag and where payment is done automatically by debiting the Amazon account by holding the mobile device equipped with the “Amazon to go App” at the entrance and exit. The surprise is that Amazon is saying that they will use the same amount of personnel as before and that they will not get rid of them. The fear of human replacement by machines doesn’t seem to exist but I think it is there and we are not addressing the problem. I don’t think we’ve properly explored the interaction between machines and humans.
But let us look at the leader who needs to answer the question: Where do I see the future heading? And how is the digital revolution in industry affecting the business and strategy that I want to accomplish? That is a lot of uncertainty from a lot of different directions.
So, when we wrote our book, we looked at uncertainty coming from any source. Digitalisation and globalisation are just two of many sources. But let us also look at the velocity of change. We all can feel this velocity. I wonder whether people can get used to that velocity. I wonder whether people feel overwhelmed by the velocity and the amount of change. So, the question is whether we can digest and feel okay with this amount and velocity of change. This is an important question and I don’t pretend to know the answer.
If we acknowledge increasing complexity and uncertainty, then most psychologists could predict the reactions of human beings: fear and anger because humans cannot decipher today’s complexity. The challenge for every one of us would be to bear the ambiguity of open questions – even those that we cannot solve. Is that a correct observation or assumption?
I think that the human being is fearful of the unknown and we tend to run away from it and not towards it. I wonder whether the pandemic has exacerbated the degree of the digital revolution and I also wonder whether the pandemic opened a window of opportunity for us to tune into the velocity of change. Furthermore, I am wondering whether this is the moment we begin to try to implement some of the concepts and ideas that have been out there for a while. We can say that we need change and that we need to try implementing those concepts and ideas since we have nothing to lose because we can’t operate as we did before. I think it is time to embrace the velocity of change.
For human beings it is difficult to cope with the velocity. Let us take the example of traveling. There is the Indian wisdom “We have to take a break from time to time and wait for our souls to catch up with us again”. I am getting ready for a long trip after having not travelled for many months due to the pandemic. My profession as consultant and professor required that I lived on an airplane out of a suitcase. I learned to show up immediately. I learned to be present immediately. I would play little tricks on myself to be ready on Monday in Paris for teaching, the day after for consulting in another place etc. Although I have been travelling before and although I have been travelling so much, I am now full of anxiety with regard to my next trip, full of feeling the uncertainty.
I am out of practice! Dealing with uncertainty is not something I think people do lightly. I think we need to be prepared. I think we need to practice. I think there are some things we need to be open and willing to do to run toward the uncertainty. So, if we need a break from time to time, that is an indication for not traveling often, that is a sign for our adaptation and that is the time we need to get prepared. I think I was prepared to deal with a certain level of uncertainty, but now that I haven’t travelled for a long time, I have regressed and I am out of practice and I have to relearn.
To be sure, living in an international bubble cuts down the uncertainty because people in this bubble are similar, the hotels and meeting places resemble each other… So, in such a bubble one feels safe and that is a way of navigating the uncertainty. Whereas when we travel as a single entity, we do not have that sort of protection and then we truly enter into another culture, another bubble… and we face the difference, the unfamiliar, the challenge, the need to explore different handling…
I believe that the idea of globalisation and digitalisation accelerates the velocity of change and I wonder if we have knocked down some of the naturally occurring barriers in some way so that we are creating a different kind of bubble that allows us to move very quickly and allows us to create a different space.
So, we no longer perceive of France, Great Britain or China as countries. Instead, we create other bubbles, sort of affinity groups or idea groups or corporate settings. Continuing in this direction, certain states and borders, groups and beliefs don’t mean as much as before and that is the way we navigate the uncertainty by finding human beings who agree with us. As a result, we might have ecosystems – bubbles – like Facebook, Amazon, Apple… where people need to decide to which bubble, they want to belong. We distinguish between the word culture with a capital C or a small c. The bubble with the capital C of Culture are the existing nations, whereas the bubbles with a small c are the cultures of the digital ecosystems. Therefore, the capital C Culture is falling away and will be replaced by the cultures with the small c.
Digital platforms and communities will help us in creating these new cultures, bubbles… And that helps me to navigate the uncertainty I face in the world around me. That means, if I face some kind of discontinuity and the uncertainty it brings, then I might turn to a Facebook special group. And that becomes my cultural reference. It scares me to lose the old cultural values, but they do fall by the wayside – and now I am aging myself by admitting that there is a part of me that does not want to lose these cultural differences. There is a discussion about these corporate actors of the ecosystems taking so much space and having so few competitors. They are creating “the only game in town”. More control leads to a narrower outlook and a development which is not as broad as it once was.
If we further recognise fear, anger, hate and low self-esteem as being a reaction to the current complexity and uncertainty, then the “automatic” and inevitable reaction is radicalisation; Is radicalisation the most probable reaction? Can we observe an increase in radicalisation with the emergence of globalisation and digitalisation?
Radicalisation simplifies the complexity and uncertainty by shrinking possible answers to just a small number of answers (for or against, right wing or left wing, pro and contra…).
If I am self-confident, self-reliant and self-sufficient as an individual, and, as I face uncertainty, I am willing to have a debate in a heterogeneous group and I am willing to explore shades, nuances, details… But if I don’t feel secure enough to listen to another opinion or solution then I am drawn to a particular view or an affinity group that gives me the feeling of being attached to something that is bigger than I am. And the digital platforms give me much more and easier opportunities and space to find followers than if I am out in the world without these digital connections in this globalised world trying to physically meet people. It would take me far more effort, far more potency to attract those followers around the world.
It is a question of heterogeneity and homogeneity. Since the 1980s in the leadership literature, you see various researchers entertaining the idea of heterogeneity. Human beings, however, enjoy being homogenous – especially in group work – cloning themselves because it is easy; it is easy to establish trust, there is low conflict… Heterogeneity leads to various ideas, requires a longer time to decide on something, produces conflict and challenges trust.
Radicalisation gives room for sects, cults and extremists to develop although I have to admit that I do not know the literature on cult-like behaviour. There is a sociology called Millenarian Movement. These are movements that promise some deliverance at some later point in time – they are cults but a different kind of cult – and it is interesting that some of the groups that I’m thinking about seem to want followers, and you begin to be sucked into these groups because they give you a sense of belonging, potency and a sense of being part of something that is bigger than you. They give you a simple answer to a complex set of problems that are full of uncertainty and confusion.
Radicalisation simplifies the complexity by shrinking the many possible answers to just a small number of answers (for or against). In addition, alleged debates in affinity groups are most of the time rarely based on knowledge and facts but rather on opinions (likes and dislikes). Furthermore, the role of science is trashed (Agnotology) because science is an iterative process and actually explores uncertainty – answers change as we test and reject hypotheses. The affinity groups do not change their mind and they trash science and the role of experts because they do not want to wait for an answer. They reject the uncertainty that comes with hypothesis testing.
My opinion is:Prof. Randall P. White
“It is time to embrace the velocity of change. Uncertainty is what makes the world go round. Uncertainty is the way we make progress, the way that inventions come to pass, and it is the new and novel: It is to be embraced!”
We are not running towards it but we are running away from it. We avoid adventures because there is the fear of doing something wrong, getting a wrong answer or making a mistake – but it is part of the game to do something wrong.
Often there isn’t a culture of failure because we follow the merit principle. There is an attempt to incorporate fault tolerance in schools, work, organisation, and this attempt is growing. It is true that children before they start school are curious, and attempt to learn and to improve, trying again and again to learn how to walk, for example, early in life asking question after question (an average of 250 questions a day which decreases to 50 by the age of 11 or 12). We train sceptics, in our formal education, so that when you come up with a new idea or a new approach, we show you three things that are wrong with your approach versus three things that are right with your idea or approach. We have many ways to eat at a person’s self-confidence and individuality. Furthermore, there is a lot of conformity because with conformity I am part of a larger group that gives me my ideas, which are a direct response to uncertainty. There is concern because there seems to be less and less independent thinking and less and less ability to judge in the flood of information and trashed science. We need to frame uncertainty as a good thing, something to be embraced and train ourselves to engage in learning and challenging each other.
If we further admit that radicalisation is on the rise, what tools are available to us to fight this trend? Trust? Education? If so, who is able to train people to consider open questions that most of us cannot decipher?
What I perceive to be happening on the digital platforms is that they provide simple answers to complex problems of uncertainty and they do not provide for review, curation, learning and feedback.
We need thinkers who think broadly, we need leaders who think from a variety of directions, points of view ‑and I do not want us to lose the opportunity and the importance of debate for exploration and trying to come up with better solutions. We are lacking liberal arts education, we lack variety, we lack diversity and debate and once I turn to or am drawn to a special group in an ecosystem and those groups start telling me things that I do not question, I find ready-made answers that I believe and accept. Then, I become a believer of something that might or might not be true. There are no debates, there is less and less critical judgement which is needed to navigate the huge amount of information available; we are not listening to each other.
A good leader embraces the uncertainty, is not afraid to ask questions, admits that s/he does not have the answer and invites others from different backgrounds and perspectives to sit together and debate possible solutions. This is delivered by a liberal arts education.
We know from authors like Donald Hambrick and Randall Peterson that heterogeneity in groups increases the time it takes for decision-making which comes off as counter-productive in the digital era where the velocity I was talking about is increasing. Isn’t it interesting that as heterogeneity goes up, trust goes down in groups, and conflict increases? We know from the research of Teresa Amabile and others that heterogeneity does not guarantee innovative solutions. So, it is not that easy to cope with uncertainty by putting together a heterogeneous group to find a good solution. Heterogeneity only increases the likelihood of finding that solution. True heterogeneity would appreciate the various differences in thoughts and standpoints around the table and encourage an open debate.
We need to learn to have debates involving heterogeneous participants. So, the question is: How do we create a space where people can learn to be more self-reliant, more self-confident, more potent and more able to have their own view, where they are challenged by other views and don’t fall into line just because they get an easy answer- a space where people don’t confuse disagreement (heterogeneity) with not being loved or not belonging to a group. The question, then, needs to be asked: How do we prevent giving room to sects and cults in times of uncertainty? This is especially difficult if there is a lack of broad-based liberal arts education where we are taught the fundamental ideas of challenging orthodoxy, listening, and building on one another’s ideas which all foster a culture of debate… I’m thinking particularly about de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and his conclusion that wide access to education is the key to preserving democratic ideas.
How about empathy? Can empathy and emotion be a way to reduce radicalisation?
Empathy is a Western ideal, and I believe empathy is one of the main EQ competencies for any leader. In this context, empathy means to be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It is the secret to cross-Cultures with a capital C. I might not speak the other language, but I might be able to interact and communicate at a level that allows me to make some sort of connection.
The problem that I note is that affinity groups aren’t very empathetic- especially towards others who do not share their point of view. Most people try to get rid of the people who have different ideas so a homogeneous group comes into existence.
We have often thought, as we debate or argue or try to find the best solution, that we need to listen and build on one another’s idea. We even practice empathy when we disagree and take the problem from their point of view.
I think the world has already done this a few times and I find that thought a scary one at this point and that is why in my classroom I have tried with all my might to show that uncertainty needs to be embraced. The number of places and debates which foster this sort of thinking is getting smaller. Whether digital platforms will serve as “trust centres” or whether governments and big regulators will try to break them apart, much as happened early in the 20th century with the large oil companies, I just don’t know. Furthermore, if we break them, what will happen?
What I do know is that we need to encourage people to embrace the uncertainty. We are frightened about what we do not know. Uncertainty represents what we do not know and our basic needs of comfort/protection/acceptance/love can seem at odds when faced with uncertainty.
Digitalisation gives people access to information – a lot of information- but paradoxically, it does increase uncertainty and people disappear in these cult-like groups that give them simple answers. Maybe our human technology has not caught up with our machine-based technology to digest the information flood and there is not a lot of emotion in those machines when we embrace the uncertainty and solve a problem together. I do not know what ability in particular captures the imagination of followers, whether it is the charisma of a leader or something else, but what I do know is that a leader needs the ability to communicate simply- but without giving simple answers.
Empathy requires observing how the person vis-à-vis to us feels by using our different senses. How can we establish “digital empathy” in times of working and having school at home which has resulted in reduced human interactions due to the pandemic? Any ideas?
I think during the pandemic when we have been forced into capsule-like environments, people have been experimenting with various human techniques to check in with others on their teams or in their classrooms. We need to continue to figure out these techniques for establishing connection and empathy as we go forward. We should be collecting examples of these techniques and interventions so that they become more widely used and study which ones are most effective in creating deep and meaningful interactions.
Randy, thank you so much for sharing your opinion, your thoughts and your view on uncertainty, radicalisation and empathy in the digital age.
Thank you, Cristina, and I look forward to reading your upcoming interviews with recognized experts, delving even deeper into this fascinating topic.