In May, 2022, I had the honor of being the keynote speaker at the University of Texas at Austin Human Dimensions of Organizations undergraduate commencement ceremony. Here are my remarks.
Good afternoon everyone!
Congratulations to the HDO graduates of the Class of 2022! We cannot celebrate your accomplishment enough. It is wonderful to see all the family and friends who have gathered here today. It is also great to share the stage with the HDO faculty and staff who did so much to support our graduates. I am so thankful that we are able to be here in-person this year.
Today, you are not just college graduates, you are Human Dimensions of Organizations graduates. You are bringing a unique human-centered perspective to bear on a world that desperately needs it. The front page of any newspaper or social-media feed is likely to highlight significant societal and political problems—and most of those will not be solved with money or technology. They will be solved through an understanding of people—as individuals, groups, and cultures. And you, graduates, will be in the best position to lead that charge.
Your education has prepared you to handle all the gray in the world around you. The gray reflects the nuance, context, goal conflicts, and boundary conditions that complicate relationships among people. One of the most important things you have learned is that the answer to every difficult question involving people is “it depends,” and you have skills to determine what effective solutions depend on. In particular, there are three things you will all bring to your future work.
First, you are able to see the normally invisible lines of force between people. Don’t worry. I don’t mean that literally…In your classes, you have drawn lessons from a variety of different disciplines to teach you about how to think about people
Whenever you learn something new, it changes the way you see the world. Years ago, I read an article in the Austin American-Statesman about the Austin Parkour Club. The members have all learned the art of clambering up walls, leaping to different surfaces, and acrobatically navigating urban spaces. One of the members talked about how he sees the world differently having learned this discipline. Where other people see a brick wall, he sees the handholds and footholds that would enable him to scale it. The new physical skills he acquired literally changed what the world looked like for him.
Similarly, having learned about elements of the way people interact, you will see things in group dynamics that your colleagues will miss. You will recognize ways that different people’s goals, education, and life circumstances will change the way they view a particular situation. That will help you to understand the limits of potential solutions and courses of action you are considering.
Just as importantly, you have also gotten new words to talk about those concepts. When you use that vocabulary for talking about what you see, you will help everyone you interact with to develop the same powers of observation. On top of that, this vocabulary gives you a grounding to influence those interactions and create better teamwork and workplace relationships.
To do that you’ll need to draw on the second core skill—your ability to empathize with others. HDO has given you opportunities to engage with history and with works of fiction related to the workplace. One of the great values reading fiction and learning about other times and places is that it enables you to walk in the shoes of others. Great novels give you alternative perspectives on events. History provides a chance to consider a world very different from the one you’re living in now. Along the way, you grapple with the difference between the way you would react to a situation and the way that a character in a book or a figure from history has dealt with it. You also get insight into the thoughts and feelings of other people that you can contrast with your own. The engagement and analysis of literature and the study of history hones your skills to empathize not just with fictional and historical characters, but also with the people you encounter daily.
Empathy has value because it helps you to understand the nuance in situations. To understand how this works, let me first introduce you to research on people who are bicultural. Bicultural individuals are those who have been raised simultaneously in two cultures and have adopted them both. This is common among immigrants to a country who have both the culture from the place where they grew up as well as the culture of their adopted country. Bicultural people have been shown to be more creative than those who grow up in a single culture because they are able to see every situation through two different lenses—one from each of their cultures.
That does not mean that people who are not bicultural are out of luck. Engaging with disciplines like history and literature allows you to immerse yourself in alternative perspectives on common situations. The empathy skills you developed through this engagement and understanding of people different from yourself will allow you to act more like a bicultural individual. You will be better able to take different perspectives on the events going on around you. And that will help you address the gray.
Finally, the ability to empathize and influence the world around you requires that you carry with you a strong sense of ethical behavior. Not long ago, the cognitive scientist Paul Bloom wrote a book called Against Empathy, in which he argued that empathy can lead people to do horrible things to others. For example, soon after the United States declared war on Japan during World War II, President Roosevelt used empathy with victims of the Pearl Harbor bombings as well as the fear instilled by bombings of the west coast of the United States by Japan to justify and build support for the program of internment camps for Japanese Americans—which was not one of our nation’s finer moments.
Examples of empathy used badly are key demonstrations that empathy is a tool that is ethically neutral. It can be used for good and for ill. And—more generally—your UT education has given you many tools rooted in your understanding of motivation and human behavior that will enhance your effectiveness at influencing others. That power can be used in many different ways. Will you use that power to promote behaviors that have a long-term benefit on your organization and the people it serves? Will you use that power to develop trusted relationships? Will you use your influence to create more respect and understanding in your community?
In the 20th century, business education was dominated by a perspective informed by theories in the field of economics. Economics helps us to track money and “utility.” It often drives people toward maximizing the benefits of actions in the short-term. As a result, this foundation for thinking about business glosses over a lot of the nuance about human relationships that drives success. I would argue that many of the factors that led to the “great resignation” and the “great reshuffling” that we are seeing now in the work world can be laid at the feet of this approach to doing business, because it does not account for the variety of goals that people pursue and the values they strive for through their work.
Business in the 21st century must shift the foundation of business—and I believe that it will—by emphasizing the humans at the center of every organization. This approach will enable us give workplace relationships and trust the value they deserve in creating long-term prosperity and well-being. And you—HDO graduates of 2022—will be at the forefront of this revolution.
As you leave the University of Texas and take that first job, remember that you will be able to see things in the people around you that others will not. Share your perception. You will be skilled at understanding the goals and mindsets of your colleagues, customers, and clients. Share your empathy. And you will be positioned to help your organizations truly value the relationships they can create. Share your values.
And remember to let us know how you’re doing. You may only have spent a few years at UT getting your education, but you’re a Longhorn for the rest of your life. We are always here for you.
Congratulations and Hook ‘em.