Andrew Laming: why empathy training is unlikely to work


Andrew Laming (second from right) with colleagues in the Coalition party room.
Andrew Taylor/AAP

Sue Williamson, UNSWAs federal parliament continues to erupt with allegations of harassment and abuse, one of the responses from our most senior leaders has been empathy training.

These are programs that help people to see the world from other people’s perspectives.

Over the weekend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison ordered disgraced Coalition MP Andrew Laming to do a private course on empathy. As Morrison told reporters

I would hope […] that would see a very significant change in his behaviour.

This follows Laming’s apology for harassing two women online and then confessing he didn’t know what the apology was for. Soon after Morrison’s announcement, Nationals leader Michael McCormack said he would get his party to do empathy training as well.

If we can […] actually learn a few tips on how to not only be better ourselves, but how to call out others for it, then I think that’s a good thing.

Many people — including opposition MPs, women’s advocates and psychologists — were immediately and instinctively sceptical. After all, if someone needs to take a course on how to be empathetic, surely something fundamental is missing, which no amount of training can fix?

The problem with empathy training

People are right to be dubious about empathy training — it has all the hallmarks of a human resources fad.

A parallel can be drawn with the introduction of unconscious bias training a few years ago. Neither are likely to be a silver bullet — or even a significant help — when it comes to discrimination and harassment.

Researchers have found requiring employees to undertake mandatory training, such as diversity training or sexual harassment training, can backfire. When people are “force fed”, they rebel and pre-existing beliefs are reinforced.

On top of this, training programs aimed to increase awareness about gender equality and discrimination are often seen by employers as remedial at best. At worst, they are punishment, which can also lead to a backlash from participants. The empathy training being given to Laming firmly sits in this camp — he has been found to have harassed women, so now he must be punished by attending a course.




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Similarly, one-off sexual harassment training has been found to be not only ineffective, but can make matters worse. American researchers found men forced to undertake sexual harassment training become defensive, and resistant to learning. But worse than this, male resistance can result in men blaming the victim, and thinking women are making false claims of sexual harassment.

So, the research findings are clear. One-off, mandatory diversity training and sexual harassment training do not work. While there is little data so far on the success of empathy programs, previous research gives no indication they would work either.

What does work?

It is not all bad news for empathy course conveners, however. Voluntary training is more successful, as volunteers are already primed for learning and concerned about gender equality and eliminating sexual harassment. Research also shows empathy can be taught, but the subject has to be willing to change.

But if mandatory training has limited effectiveness, what will work to eliminate sexual harassment? We certainly don’t need any more indications our federal parliament and our broader society needs to change.

Protesters at the recent March 4 Justice in Melbourne.
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of Australians took to the streets, calling for change at parliament house and beyond.
James Ross/AAP

As Dr Meraiah Foley and I have previously argued, for training to be effective, it needs to do several things.

Firstly, it needs to be complemented by affirmative action measures, such as setting targets to increase the numbers of women in leadership. This is why the renewed debate about quotas in the Liberal Party is so important.

Secondly, the training needs to lead to new structures and new accountability for behaviour. This can be achieved by course participants identifying desirable behaviours that can progress equality at work. For example, small actions such as ensuring women participate equally in meetings sends a signal their opinions are valued.

Participants then log when they enacted those behaviours, and discuss progress with trained facilitators. Participants continue to reflect, and act, and later, share experiences and identify successful strategies.




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Thirdly, for workplace gender equality to progress, the ongoing process of behaviour change needs to be complemented with systemic organisational change. As I have written elsewhere, researchers recommend organisations adopt short and long-term agendas, to achieve small, immediate wins, while deeper transformations occur.

Structural change starts with an examination of human resource processes and policies to uncover gender bias and discrimination. No doubt Kate Jenkins will be undertaking such a task in her review of workplace culture at parliament house.

The bigger change we need

Examining process and policies, however, is not enough. Changing the language, and other symbolic expressions in organisations are also an important part of culture change to embed gender equality. For example, making sure meeting rooms are named after women and portraits of women — as well as men — adorn the walls sends a subtle yet powerful message the space also belongs to women.

Changing the ways of working, the rituals and artefacts of parliament house will help to change the culture.

Structural and systemic change to achieve gender equality is slow. While sending recalcitrant politicians to training courses may seem like an unavoidable first step, it is not where we need to focus attention.The Conversation

Sue Williamson, Senior Lecturer, Human Resource Management, UNSW Canberra, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Politicians need to listen up before they speak up – and listen in the right places


Jim Macnamara, University of Technology Sydney

Over the past month, Australians and many people around the world have been listening – really listening – to politicians, for a change. Some politicians, that is. Jacinda Ardern, for one.

People everywhere have been moved by her comments, often to tears. She has been lauded for her demonstration of empathy and understanding of complex, emotionally charged issues that some others reduce to glib slogans.

How is it that the New Zealand prime minister is such a good speaker?

It’s because she is a good listener. Understanding and empathy, so lacking in much political discussion and debate, don’t come from being a good talker. They come from active, empathetic, inclusive listening.




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Empathy is essential to leadership

I don’t wish to sound like yet another member of a movement to canonise Jacinda Ardern, but she stands as a good example of what people want from politicians. Policy, yes. Leadership, yes. But not a blustering, boasting, blowhard style of leadership focused on self-aggrandisement and berating and beating the opposition – a style of political discourse to which we are all too accustomed.

Leadership studies emphasise empathy. Princess Diana had it. Nelson Mandela had it. That did not make them weak. To the contrary, it made them strong and able to effect change.

Knowledge is important to produce informed policy. But understanding of people is also vital in a democracy. Understanding their affective (emotional) as well cognitive responses and their deepest concerns, fears and hopes requires listening. And listening to all sectors of society, not only elites and lobbyists.

Not listening is what led to Brexit

A research project I have led over the past four years inside a variety of political, government, corporate and non-government organisations has found 80% to 95% of communication resources are devoted to disseminating messages. That is, speaking, mostly about themselves. As little as 5% of the large investment by organisations in communication is devoted to listening.

Calling the referendum that resulted in Brexit was the result of not listening. The former Conservative government in the UK led by David Cameron did not understand the views and concerns of British people. How could that be when they spent money on research and a bevy of political advisers?

Research indicates three main reasons.

  1. Many politicians and political parties rely heavily on polls with “tick a box” questions, and often small unrepresentative samples to measure support. But, as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump showed, polls often do not reflect the concerns or mood of a majority of citizens.

  2. Politicians continue to play to traditional media, believing that media reflect public opinion, and that making headlines in newspapers or being on TV is a primary influence on people’s behaviour.

  3. They rely on their political parties, not only for organisation, but as their “electorate” and “voice of the people”.




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Political participation has changed

The problem for Australian politicians facing a federal election in May is that audience and influence of traditional media in Australia, and many Western countries, have been in severe decline for some time.

Journalism remains important – perhaps more important than ever. But many people, particularly young people and some major ethnic communities, get their information, news and advice from social media, peers and other sources.

The major political parties in Australia reportedly had 100,000 to 200,000 members in the 1950s, but that number had shrunk to less than 50,000 by 2013. In the UK, political party registration data reveal that the total membership of the three largest political parties amounts to just 1.6% of eligible voters.

In short, the goal posts and the sites of democratic participation have moved over the past decade or so – from major political parties and traditional mass media to social media, social movements, activist groups, special interest groups and small minority parties.




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Australian politicians should listen first

Studies of election campaigns show that politicians use social media primarily for posting slogans and political messages, rather than listening.

While some sites are “echo chambers” frequented by bots and fake accounts, there is also a large body of authentic public opinion voiced every day online – voices crying out to be listened to. There are also new types of community and environmental organisations that fall under the radar of mainstream politics.

It’s time for politicians to #listenfirst, learn and lead.The Conversation

Jim Macnamara, Professor of Public Communication, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.