Disruption as a catalyst to thrive

July 25, 2019 10:45 am

Part 2: ‘Pay it forward’ growth and learning through empathy

Challenges often cause personal disruption. Our research has shown that problems can be a catalyst to thrive.  Through a series of applied studies, we are now able to define the conditions that are necessary for disruption to become a catalyst to thrive.  In our last post, we talked about the importance of psychological safety to cultivate the self-awareness needed for growth.  In the next several posts, we will highlight more of our findings from these studies and describe how we use what we discover to design our science-based development programs.











Increased empathy is a common consequence of enduring a challenging experience.

In both of our studies, people shifted from merely ‘caring’ to a recognition that other people are complex. Likewise, they came to understand that their feelings and behaviour, while confusing and perhaps unhelpful in the moment, are normal responses to their circumstances.

Openness and acceptance accompanied this more nuanced understanding without judgment or the urge to ‘fix’ the other person.  Likewise, the people in our studies described themselves as better able to experience the other person’s pain without ‘taking on’ the pain as their own.  This understanding contributed to a better ability to ‘be present’  with others and to resist an inclination to  ‘just make the pain or the source of the pain go away’.

Human ‘presence’ is an essential condition that contributes to growth and learning in the face of disruption.

For example, in the first study, one man described seeing his child suffer through a significant loss.  He realised that the most helpful thing he could do was ‘be there’.

You have to just stand next to them you can’t do it for them – you don’t really know what’s in their head

Another woman described having observed her nephew struggle with an injury that resulted in reduced physical capacity.

You do experience their grief, but there is a point when you have to believe in their ability to find the strength when they need it

Participants in the Outreacher study also demonstrated increased empathy.  In one case, the participant not only saw the basic humanity in the people who were sleeping rough but also recognised that his ability to empathise enabled the other person to connect more deeply.

I saw people as people – learn to treat people better and they open up.   People are normal no matter what they are enduring.

Another person came to see the similarities between herself and people experiencing homelessness.

Learned that people are fundamentally the same, and things happen in their lives. Through talking and making connections we see the commonality and not the differences.

We have seen these same changes in the leaders with whom we consult.  For example, we recently conducted a Change Forensic™for one of our client organisations that was experiencing industry disruption which was driving significant change within the business.

In our initial audit, we discovered the smart, well-meaning leaders were inadvertently contributing to further angst and subsequent underperformance in their employees. Because they had not developed the sensitivity and skills to lead in an unstable environment, they misinterpreted behaviour and at times made the erroneous assumption that everyone would ‘react’ in the same way.

After participating in a program we designed to build their competence and confidence to lead through uncharted territory, these leaders shifted the way they handled ‘inappropriate behaviour’.  This include changes in their perceptions and interpretations such as the ability to:

  • recognise the losses their people perceived, and
  • view employee reactions through a neuro-behavioural lens, thus reframing their interpretations of resistance, avoidance and even aggression as signs of vulnerability.

These shifts in empathy provided the impetus for the leaders to learn more sophisticated skills to compassionately assist others to manage their losses, and at the same time, move the business forward.

Current neuroscientific research has highlighted the fundamental human need to connect with others. The evidence is clear that humans are social beings, and our brains are ‘wired to connect’from the time we are born and throughout our lives.

It is normal to build up biases and make assumptions about others. However, when confronted with challenges, people are better able to observe their own sometimes surprising and ‘inconsistent’ behaviour. This understanding contributes to the recognition that other people also react ‘in their own way’.  People who have been through challenges are often better able to understand that everybody suffers the pain of loss and the anxiety of uncertainty.  Moreover, when people get better at ‘being present’ and not assuming they have to fix someone else, they are better positioned to provide the support necessary to help the other person grow.

Deepening of empathy helps people become better learners and leaders but, perhaps more importantly, it also helps them become better friends and family members as well.

Empathic relationships also contribute to a sense of predictability and trust.  Trust enhances the psychological safety that is essential for learning, growth and ultimately ‘paying forward’ the ability to thrive in response to challenge.

Want more practical BrainWise tools?

Dr Connie Henson, the author of BrainWise Leadership, designs change leadership programs informed by the latest neuroscience research through Learning Quest.

Connect with us directly to learn more about our science-based services which include:

  • One-on-one leadership programs TalentFAST™,
  • Our team assessment and coaching program TeamFAST™ and
  • A variety of group-based culture-change programs, as well as online delivery.

For information, email chenson@learningquest.com.au or visit www.learningquest.com.au

Photo credit: Joah Calabrese on Unsplash and Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

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