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The Shriver Report The Fourth Wall of Empathy

When Rick Raemisch, Colorado’s new Chief of Corrections, asked to spend time in solitary confinement at a prison in Cañon City, some people thought he had lost it.

But Raemisch, in an effort to ignite a larger discussion about the overuse of solitary confinement, knew he needed to walk the walk in order to talk the talk. His stint – twenty hours in a cell alone – garnered national headlines and encouraged prison administration and policymakers to question the frequency of this extreme measure of punishment.

While there is no dearth of discussion these days about the importance of empathy, a few of the most innovative leaders are going beyond symbolism to action: They understand that it is one thing to say you’re empathic; it is another thing to immerse yourself in a problem or situation in order to solve it.

In my book, The Athena Doctrine we surveyed 64,000 people in thirteen countries. And we found that 81% of people agreed, “Today’s times require we be more kind and empathetic to others.” But how do leaders express empathy authentically?

In theater, the fourth wall suggests the imaginary “wall” at the front of a stage, which is the boundary between the fictional setting of a performance and the audience. This wall is only broken when an actor speaks directly to us (Think Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards”). Similarly, it takes a leader crossing the transom of observation to experience.

In cultivating empathy through “experiential immersion,” there is a new level of integrity and trust to be gained – both traits that have great utility for modern-day leaders.

We are seeing similar immersive tactics being employed by politicians who want to appear more approachable and in touch with the communities that they serve and the issues that they speak on behalf of. Senator and then Newark Mayor, Cory Booker, took a hands-on approach to raising awareness about food justice initiatives when he pledged to partake in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and live on food stamps for a week—the equivalent of about $4.50 a day– a harsh reality that as many as 840,000 New Jersey residents face. Joining him in this challenge was Ron Shaich, the founder and CEO of Panera Bread. He told CNN:

“I really thought I understood the scope of the problem. But let me tell you something — I had no clue. My SNAP Challenge last week taught me that merely observing someone else’s plight does not hold a candle to consciously altering your habits to better understand what it might be like to live someone else’s life. I was hungry last week — laser-focused on how much food was left in the fridge and how many dollars were left in my wallet. I was scared about eating portions that were too big, and wasn’t sure what to do if my food ran out. I canceled two scheduled dinners, knowing they were way beyond my budget.”

Then there is the popular TV show, Undercover Boss, which inconspicuously plants senior executives in entry-level positions within their own companies to gain a firsthand perspective on how they function from the bottom up. Stripped of cufflinks and chauffeurs, the “worker-bosses” peer behind the curtain of the c-suite into the dirty underbelly of their business. They emerge endowed with a unique purview to effectively evolve and grow their companies. As The Wall Street Journal reported, the stocks of all the public companies that have appeared on the show are up since their episodes aired and all but one have outperformed the S&P 500 in that time.

Immersive empathy is also inspiring innovation at MIT’s Age Lab, which I document in The Athena Doctrine. Researchers there have built a suit – the Age Gain Now Empathy System (AGNES) – that simulates what it is like to be a senior citizen. It restricts the wearers’ range of motion and dulls their senses in a way that helps them walk (literally) in the shoes of a senior citizen.

While students have had a great time stepping (temporarily) into the shoes of their grandparents, AGNES isn’t just for entertainment. The knowledge gleaned from researchers wearing the suit impacts the fields of industrial designers, engineers and architects in an effort to comprehend and accommodate our aging population’s experience in the world.

And finally, walking in another person’s shoes is the surest way to correct our biases. For example, psychologists have found that when people were instructed to write an essay from the perspective of an elderly person, they had fewer negative stereotypes about this population. Additionally, asking white healthcare professionals to put themselves in the shoes of their African-American patients drastically reduced the racial gap in pain treatment.

Rick Raemisch is now parlaying his experience in solitary to redress safety issues that arise from not properly rehabilitating inmates after lengthy stints in confinement. For Raemisch, breaking through the fourth wall of empathy required surrounding himself alone with only four walls. As leaders, we have a responsibility not to “fake” empathy – as well as an incentive not to. Sometimes, we need to strip down the rhetoric and lead through the experience.

This article first appeared on The Shriver Report.

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