In spite of plenty of evidence that employees come to work with both their brains AND their hearts, emotions and empathy aren’t something we see or talk a lot about in the workplace. In today’s episode, Debra and lisa speculate on what role an Empath like Deanna Troi from Star Trek TNG would play in today’s business space. Join Debra and lisa as they analyze the character, the strengths and skill set—and consider how this character’s role could enhance organizational culture and performance.
Listen to the podcast here:
What Can Business Learn From Deanna Troi?
Debra and lisa Speculate On The Role An Empath Would Play In The Modern-Day Workplace
I’m kicking off season two with my new cohost lisa. How are you doing, lisa?
I’m doing great, Debra. I’m so thrilled to be jumping into season two with you. You’ve had a phenomenal season one of the show. It’s a pleasure for me to be able to join you in what we both know is going to be an incredible season two.
I’m excited. We have some amazing stuff planned and we’re doing something a little different. We are doing a little somewhat of a character analysis, I would call it perhaps, of the Deanna Troi character from Star Trek: The Next Generation. You’ll tell me if I get some of these words wrong because you’re a bigger fan than I am of the show. However, I am fascinated by this character. You’re going to tell us a little bit about the character and the show for people who may or may know less or more about it. She’s an interesting character especially the time at which this show aired. The question that you and I are asking is this type of role that she held on the ship… does it exist in workplaces and in business? Is it a role that exists in organizations? If not, should it? That’s what we’re tackling, so over to you. Tell us a little bit about it. You were a fan of the show.
I was a fan of the show. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched every episode at least twice. That does not make me an expert by any stretch but I’ve always been captivated by television series that have a moral or an ethical container around them. Let me describe for the audience who might not be familiar with the series. Star Trek: The Next Generation or TNG as those of us who watched it call it, was an American science fiction TV series. It follows the adventures of the Starship Enterprise as it’s hurtling through space in the 24th Century. At that time, Earth and, not us but our future ancestors, are part of the United Federation of Planets. Apparently, peace has come. Planets have joined. The series was a sequel of sorts to the original series that aired from 1966 to 1969 starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk.
For those who live in Montreal, you’ll know that William Shatner was a Montrealer. He went to McGill but in TNG, the ship’s Captain is Jean-Luc Picard, who’s played by the talented and, if I may say so very sexy, Patrick Stewart, leads a senior team, which Deanna Troi, who we’re speaking about, is the ship’s counselor. She’s a mixed-race: human and Betazoid. She has extensive training in Psychology. She serves both as a therapist and a diplomat, given her high degree of intuition and her limited telepathic skills.
Interestingly, her role was originally conceived as being three or four breasted piece of eye candy for the show. It wasn’t initially seen as a key part of how the series would unfold. As I understand it, and as I was reading about the background to the show, the show’s writers found her character very difficult to write for and it took a few seasons for a more fully developed and nuanced character to emerge. That’s the background on the show.
Debra, you and I have talked about, as you said, here’s someone on the Starship Enterprise who we presume has been hired into this role. It serves a very specific function that is different from an engineer, a CFO or some chief other officers. The question that you and I bounced back and forth was, in the way that we conceive of it, is this an HR role? I like to know what your thoughts are on this.
Humans are not a cost or a liability in an organization. They are the organization.
I do have some thoughts on that. Before I do, I’ll say in my limited viewing of the show because I certainly am well aware of it and I’ve seen some episodes. This idea is that this character is misunderstood. I always found myself wanting more of Deanna Troi whenever I would watch the show because there were a few episodes where I thought: “There’s something interesting there. It’s like a tip of the iceberg, but there’s so much more I felt could have been done with that character.” It’s interesting they went there, but I feel like there’s so much more that could be explored with that. Is this existing in business? Is it HR?
I don’t think so. I don’t see HR filling this role. HR is the closest thing that we have. We’re talking about that more soft skills area. Soft skills tend to be misunderstood. There are less tangible, especially when we talk about something like intuition. I’m a firm believer in intuition, but it’s something that’s hard to describe or quantify. It’s a bit mystical, almost. These types of skills are not just misunderstood, but undervalued. In businesses, we don’t place a high value on them, especially when compared to the more tangible things, let’s say, like finance and technology. HR seems to be tied up with the functioning of getting people in and out of the organization, and all the administrative components to that. I see them more focused on two main things.
This is my observation and my opinion about HR, or people in culture. The trend is changing but whether they get there, I don’t know. From what I’ve observed, HRs exists to serve the executives. I don’t mean coach the executives and make the executives better necessarily. They try to do that often, but it’s more serve the executives and performance-manage the employees. There’s a lot of work to be done around managing a workforce… all the data required, making sure people get paid and bonuses. What else would you add to that list that’s HR seems to be more focused on?
I have such mixed feelings even talking about HR because I come from a Learning and Development perspective—but the roles I’ve held in organizations often were in the HR department. As you described, even though the word human is in it, they’ve never seemed humane to me, for a large part. A lot of what I’ve seen in human resources is exactly what you’re talking about. The transactional, bringing people into the organization, the recruitment, do they have the skills that are required in the role, onboarding them into the culture of the organization and into the specific tasks they’re being required to do, but then there is the whole labor relations for whether unionized or non-unionized organizations. Things like succession planning, who’s going to be the next person potentially to take a role in an organization and pay benefits. That’s typically when we think of HR, in my view.
Where I see a huge gap is this lack of understanding or clarity that humans are not a cost or a liability in an organization. They are the organization. You want people to be welcomed, feel a sense of belonging, be able to bring their potential, creativity and thinking. I can tell you from the many organizations I’ve worked in, we’ve hired fantastic people who are often very well-rounded, and within six months of their becoming an employee of the organization, everything that was great about them has been muted because we’re asking them to fit in, more than we’re asking them to make themselves at home, get to know them and discover what they can bring to the goals, the vision and the mission of the organization.
There’s a big vacancy and a big opportunity here for organizations. The way that I see the Deanna Troi type role in an organization, I’m going to call it the Chief Wisdom Officer (CWO). What would come under the role of Chief Wisdom Officer? That’s something that would be fun for us to explore a little bit, if this was a role that did exist. There’s a little bit of crossover into maybe traditional HR but it goes a lot further. I’ve written down four high-level key areas that this Chief Wisdom Officer would be responsible for.
Let’s go through those and we’ll chat a little bit about each of them. The first one I have down is what I would call almost an ethics watchdog. I see this as being the person who works with the executive team to ensure that the organization operates in accordance with its expressed values so that there’s values alignment. That’s not just internally in terms of the employee experience, but it’s also externally in terms of how the organization operates within a community, its customers, suppliers, investors and within the geographic community that it exists in. I know you’ve done a lot of work on organizational values and a lot of taking leadership teams through those exercises. What do you say about your experience with values?
I am deeply interested not only in what organizations do and how we support people in fulfilling the tasks in order to deliver on the mission of an organization. In fact, I would say I’m far more interested, given the work I do and how the work is done, is how people relate to each other and even deeper than that, who are we as people doing this work? What values are is a sense of what matters to us. What is critical to us in how we do our work and who we are in the doing of the work? Organizations that you’ve worked in and I’ve worked in typically have anywhere from three to five, sometimes seven values. I don’t know how you can remember that many, but organizations have values that are proxies for the behaviors that the organization says it values.
For instance, an organization might say: “Integrity is one of our values.” What that means is how we do our work is we do it with candor, authenticity and honesty whether it’s our accounting practices or how we hold conversations. We don’t have the meeting after the meeting in the room down the hallway and talk about, “I can’t believe what so-and-so said.” Values such as courage that when we need to step into something that is more difficult or take a stand publicly because we believe in strongly in something that we do that.
We don’t create systems or cultures that make it easy for people to express themselves, or to call something out that might be inappropriate. What we’ve talked about, called the ethics watchdog, it’s holding people accountable to the shared values, behaviours that define the culture, and how we want to be with each other as human beings regardless of role within the hierarchy.
How many people do you think can say they either currently do or have worked for an organization that they felt that values alignment. Not to be overly pessimistic about things but in my work, I have worked with many employees who felt a values misalignment. I would say that it’s become almost pervasive in our work culture that we accept that because “that’s business.” That’s the way companies operate. That’s what leaders do, and we almost give it, in some cases, a pass. That’s the way organizations are.
Those values are more of a marketing thing as opposed to the lived experience. That sense of hypocrisy that’s created: I think it just creates a general sense of mistrust, and almost a sense of skepticism about workplaces in general. People will take that from one organization to another. Those are experiences. It’s important that organizations start to look at this carefully because we want to change the culture around this. Otherwise, we’ve got a whole workforce of disengaged people who are skeptical about leadership.
One of the things that I’ve noticed in the course of my work is what I call culture washing. In the same way that organizations might purport themselves to be environmentally friendly and say that they are using a particular paper bag or whatever instead of plastic to sell their product, meanwhile, they’re using child labour in some developing countries… saying “we’re green,” but having another potentially, or very clearly unethical, practice. Organizations also do this with their culture and values. They will sell themselves as being full of integrity or courage, the two I mentioned earlier. “This is a place for innovation and creativity. We value candor, people being able to fail and learn.”
Many of us are recruited into these organizations, so I’ve had this experience myself. A feeling that I was sold on in an organization’s culture that, in fact, when I got there was anything but. It is deeply disappointing. When you’re getting a job, you’re negotiating about the salary, what is it that I’m going to be doing, and you’re all excited. The day that you’re the most highly engaged in an organization is the second before you walk in the door because you’re full of hope.
Generally speaking, we don’t have enough leaders who are self-aware and high in emotional intelligence or EQ.
To then discover that the culture, as it was described to you, is anything but. Sometimes, it can happen within a day or two, when you watch what’s happening in meetings, and how people talk about each other. That’s one thing. To touch on what you said, often cultural values affect people differently, or are called to differently, depending on their role in the organization, so you can get away with things if you are the rainmaker.
When I worked in healthcare, if you are the physician who can make deaf people hear, chances are you don’t have to be as respectful to the nurses or the social workers on the unit because you have a particular skillset so we will allow you to not honour the values. Throughout my whole career, when it comes to behavior: what you permit, you promote.
That leads me into number two, which is the Chief Wisdom Officer, AKA the Deanna Troi role in the organization: it is to also be on asshole alert. I think of this as the leadership screen, who gets into leadership roles in an organization, and based on what qualities and characteristics? Compared to the average population, narcissists and sociopaths are overrepresented in leadership. Generally speaking, we don’t have enough leaders who are self-aware and high in emotional intelligence or EQ. I see that role as working with leaders to help them develop those skills to the extent that they can. Not everybody’s going to be good at everything.
Deanna Troi has natural capabilities in this area. Other people have natural capabilities in engineering, finance, math, other areas. Great, but how do we value these things? Are we valuing them equally and ensuring that we use the best of all of those capabilities? What I see happening most of the time is those softer skills areas are somewhat diminished or undervalued, and we’re overvaluing these other areas. That person, to me, is making sure that the right people move through the ranks for the right reasons, coaching, and making it pervasive in the entire culture that we avoid those situations like what you described. That affects how everybody feels about an organization when certain behaviors are not just tolerated but rewarded.
I’ve seen these many times in my career. I’m sure you have, where somebody who’s very technically competent gets promoted into a leadership role. We know that doing a thing, I’m going to use knitting as an example, does not necessarily make you a great Chief Knitting Officer because it’s an entirely different skillset. Clicking two needles together with a long piece of wool to create a beautiful piece of clothing, a tuque or whatever, is very different than talking to people about the things that they’re producing. Are they happy? Are they comfortable? All of those other things… what might be getting in the way of higher performance?
Becoming a leader is a very different skillset than being an individual contributor. Where we have a major problem in organizations is the only path to a higher role, to a better salary is to take on leadership roles. I met a woman years ago who was Danish. She was one of the countries in Scandinavia. She worked for an organization where regardless of whether your career path was into leading people or to refining your skills as a technical person or an individual contributor, they had career ladders for both. That prevented people who were very technically competent who did not have the potential, the willingness or the desire to develop and have a career path that recognized their own development in deepening their skills.
You’re not force-feeding people into leadership roles, because that’s the only way in order for them to evolve in their careers. This is something organizations need to look at, because otherwise, we get exactly what you described as people who were pursuing power into leadership roles that necessarily might not have the skills that we would think of leaders needing, such as Deanna Troi-ish skills in the workplace.
We should continue to unpack and think about this, as we move forward in future episodes. Is it fair to expect all of these things in one person? Should they be teased apart, but work collaboratively together? That’s a great question, and it’s a great thing for organizations to look at and scrutinize a little more carefully.
Number three on my list ties together a few things we’ve already touched on, but it needs to ensure that the very best of behavioural, social and neuroscience is being utilized in the people practices of the organization: people practices, leadership, conflict resolution, how do we help people to innovate and be creative… There is a growing amount of peer-reviewed science; there are a ton of great thought leaders and scientists out there doing this work. I’m going to do a quick comparison to the CFO role.
Is the CFO role using the very best accounting practices and finance practices out there? Is the “Math and Science” behind readily available, and being applied in organizations? Yes, it is, but can we say the same about those softer skill areas and the science behind them? This is where I see a huge miss, and a huge opportunity for organizations moving forward. What do you think? Do you see this being fully fleshed out and utilized in organizations?
Not yet. We have yet to optimize for neuroscience. When we talk about neuroscience, to be clear, it’s different from psychology. Psychology is the study of the human mind and human behavior, where neuroscience is the study of the anatomy and the physiology of the brain. This is where we understand, for instance, the impact of freezing people out or social isolation. What happens in the brain is people feel the same amount of pain as though they were physically injured.
Neuroscience is understanding what physically happens in the brain. Much work has been done about the workplace and how we can create places that are healthy for the human brain. This has been studied through Magnetic Resonance, MRIs, positron emission tomography, PET scans, and all kinds of evidence that when we put people in situations in the workplace, we’re not taking care of who they are in terms of who their brains are, separate from the behavioural pieces, that are more psychological. We’re not creating environments in which people can be creative, productive and innovative. If we’re not watching or paying attention to this, we’re creating work environments that are based on what we know of science in terms of the human being. I agree with you.
The skeptic out there will say: “Why should an organization have to worry about any of that? They’re there to make money.” We understand that. We’re going to come to some of the benefits of why. This is what the whole show is going to be about moving forward because there are tangible benefits to the bottom line, and the data is there, so not to worry. We haven’t forgotten about the money!
The last one is I’m calling out is helping people with their emotions. This soft area of feelings and emotions at work, which I think is critical to professional development, is emotional management. What is your experience in terms of how emotions are perceived and dealt with at work? I certainly know how I’ve felt about my show of emotions at work. What do you think?
How many times have I heard and I’m sure many of our audience have heard, “It’s just a business. It’s just a job,” as a way to dismiss very powerful feelings that come up in the workplace.
Becoming a leader is a very different skillset than being an individual contributor.
“It’s not personal. It’s business.” I totally agree with you when you say organizations are there to fulfill a function whether it’s a profit motive, creating a product or a service that helps people live or you have to pay for it. Somebody is making a profit somewhere. Groceries, for instance. We need to eat. We know there are people who are profiting from this but we also profit from it by having access to somebody who’s willing to get food for us, package it and sell it to us. If you look at the broader non-profit sector, things like public broadcasting and healthcare. We earn incomes in order to pay taxes to have certain benefits of living in society. Here’s the thing. Our brains are not machines.
Let me briefly touch on this. In my limited understanding, I talked a little bit about neuroscience, but let me give the audience a sense of when we talk about emotion in the workplace, why there needs to be room for it. Brains are essentially three things. There’s a brain stem. This is the part of the brain that regulates bodily functions. It monitors your current state. If you’re too hot, you sweat. If you’re too cold, you shiver. These are things you don’t even think about. Your brain stem takes care of that. We then have the limbic brain. That’s more of the emotional brain. There are two parts to this, the hippocampus, which weaves emotions, times, perceptions and memory, and the amygdala, which is where the emotional processing happens.
If something startles you or you hear bad news, this is the part of the brain that reacts very quickly. Evolutionarily, over our eyeballs, we have the prefrontal cortex. It’s called the Executive Functioning Brain. It integrates signals from the brain stem and the limbic system. It gives us a sense of self. It’s responsible for thinking, planning, goal setting, moral awareness, intuition, balancing our emotions and choosing how we want to express ourselves. I’ll give you a very quick example. Put a rose in front of the brain stem. That part of the brain says: “Smells good. Looks pretty.” The limbic system will associate a rose with love. The prefrontal cortex says: “Valentine’s Day is coming up. I got to get some flowers for main squeeze, parent, etc.” That gives you a sense of what the three parts of the brain are.
The reason I give you that background is we’re not only prefrontal cortexes. We’re not only planning and reasoning. We are emotional people. We are impacted by things that happen in the workplace. Debra, you have seen this. An organization goes through a downsizing and people are, as we might say, left behind with very mixed emotions. It’s in colleagues that they’ve worked with. This is maybe only a business and it’s not personal, but grieving comes with these situations. Having, again, a Deanna Troi role to help people work through feelings, so that they can focus on the vision, the mission and the strategies of an organization are deeply important. Otherwise, people get stuck in very intense emotions that they’re not able to process.
Generally speaking, in our culture, there’s this idea that we should suppress emotion. We shouldn’t show it. It’s almost unprofessional. There’s a more professional way to communicate but what I’ve seen happen more so is a denial, a pushing down and a suppression. A denial that these things are at play in the workplace and hugely influential. It’s because a lot of people lack the skill in dealing with it. We’re afraid to go there. It’s one of those areas that is tricky especially for people in leadership to know how to deal with it.
I want to unpack this a little bit based on the work of a psychologist by the name of Susan David. She works in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She’s got a great TED Talk and is the author of Emotional Agility. She has something that she calls an Emotional Pyramid of Needs, which caught my eye. What I liked about it is because the very top of the pyramid is wisdom, which is where we’re going with this—that leaning into understanding emotion, helping being able to process it for yourself, and help others deal. It’s part of wisdom. Here’s a couple of things, though, that she says about emotion. At the very base level, step number one is at the bottom of the pyramid. There’s no value in trying to deny or suppress uncomfortable emotions.
We tend to label emotions as positive or negative, but here’s the thing: when we suppress, what we think of as grief, is it a negative emotion? No, it’s part of the human experience. We can’t deny it. You can try. When we suppress negative emotion, we also suppress joy, love, and all those things that make life creative. It’s a two-way street. To live fully, you have to experience both ends of that spectrum.
The other thing she says is our emotions are data that tell us what we’re missing in our lives. They are signposts that can teach us how to make better decisions and take values-based actions. To me, emotion is information and data. It’s something to be explored and maybe discussed. Wouldn’t it be great to be in a boardroom and be able to say: “I’m getting triggered by this conversation? I’m not sure what it is but can we take a bit of time to unpack that?” To have people be willing to listen and explore that, as opposed to feeling, quite frankly, embarrassed to bring it up. I don’t know that most people would feel comfortable.
In my case, “There goes lisa again.”
Any thoughts on that, lisa?
I’ve been in the workforce since I was fourteen years old, if you count my very first job, which I was fired from making ice cream in a soft cone business because I couldn’t quite figure out pulling the lever down and the turning with the other hand. Aside from that, we spent a ton of time at work. Many of us more than our families. Who knows? Maybe for good reasons or we may need a break from our families. This touches on what you said a little bit about what might be considered this airy-fairy stuff. In order to have good productivity or have healthy people contributing to society who are not part of this incredibly huge wave of people who are experiencing stress, the burden of mental illness and anxiety, particularly during a pandemic… if you want to extract the labour, the intelligence, the knowledge and the capabilities of people, the best way to do that is to create an environment that people want to be in.
There, it feels safe to express those things and to be able to call out behaviours that go against the stated organizational values. There is no downside to having a healthy, emotional, psychologically safe workplace. I do want to put two caveats on that. I’m not saying that when you express yourself at work that everything goes. I’m not saying that people can express their full selves if their full selves are abusive or disrespectful. I’m talking about the traits that allow us to evolve as humanity to create products, services—or ways of creating environments that help people evolve whatever their journey that they’re on. I would call them a more positive state.
The other thing is our planet is on fire/being flooded out. We need environments where people can find solutions. We’re going to run out of time if we don’t create workplaces in which people or any of our groups, teams or communities come together and solve very urgent problems that this planet is facing. Why would we continue to think that the workplace is where I can only bring a set of hands and a prefrontal cortex? Those are the only parts of me that are welcome. It makes no sense. My first caveat is to not only think about what anything goes.
The second caveat is we need to rethink what we mean by leadership because we are being stunted by hierarchies in which somehow we believe that the higher up people are in organizations, that they’re smarter, know more and they’re better. That might be the case, but let’s not forget that we are all human beings who are discovering things all at the same time. Maybe you know a little bit more when you’re a leader because you’ve been exposed to more, but we need everyone to be fully participating. I’m feeling like I put a soapbox under my feet. We’re capable and smart people. All of us are smart people. If we’re not doing this, where are we going to end up? That is frightening to me.
Emotion is information. Emotion is data. It’s something to be explored and to be discussed.
Most of what we’re doing is not sustainable. We know this and there’s lots of science to say so. Look around. Almost everything we do, we could be doing it in a better, more sustainable way. We need to unleash people’s innate talents and capabilities. We need to harness their passion and motivation. People want to do those things. The workplace and leaders are what’s getting in the way of people developing that and contributing more! We can have a more beautiful life. We can make our society, our world better for everyone, but we need to create better workplace cultures for that to happen. We need the right leadership in place in order for that to happen.
To go back to Deanna Troi where we started, I hope that in the 24th Century, women are not wearing short skirts and showing their cleavage in order to be in the workplace. We are required to bring our hearts and our minds to the workplace. To use her character as an example, and for those of you who are curious, watch the first five minutes of an episode in season one. It’s episode 24 called We’ll Always Have Paris. There’s a lovely moment at the very beginning of the episode in which Deanna Troi gives such incredibly nuanced feedback to Captain Jean-Luc Picard. That’s the workplace that I want to be a part of, where somebody can create an environment where it’s safe to talk about things that might be uncomfortable. This is about helping us all grow and learn to bring our better selves to the workplace.
I love the idea that we can have a conversation like this that might even be based on a fictional character but has some grounding in where we need to go. There are many clues around us, many people you and I read, we love to listen to, and the podcasts we listen to… who is helping us get there. The fact that you and I can bring one extra little thread to this amazing weaving that we’re creating to blanket the future with goodness, in terms of the workplace, is powerful. I want to say one thing about the things that you talked about those four elements. We do need to fall back on science. We do it elsewhere. We talk about best practices all the time. To not talk about that in terms of the culture of organizations is an opportunity that we would be wrong to set aside and miss.
For all the data heads and all the people who need proof and evidence, we’re going to give it to you. Thank you so much for this conversation, lisa. We’ve got lots more fun and exciting stuff coming up. That’s it. Until next time.
About Deanna Troi
Deanna Troi is a main character in the science-fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation and related TV series and films, portrayed by actress Marina Sirtis. Troi is half-human, half-Betazoid and has the psionic ability to sense emotions.