In Search of Empathy

At a recent leadership event focused on Organizational Change Management, one of the comments I heard described a key point that I felt I couldn’t let go unnoticed. The comment that was made was, “we need to continue to show empathy to our partners, teams, and peers”.Screaming400x2251

At the surface, this seems like a “garden variety” type of statement. It’s not.

At one point in the day long leadership event on OCM, I told the story of my own attempts early in my careeer related to organizational change. It was mainly about mistakes I made related to “human factors”. My failure is littered with me (as the change agent in firms) showing very little empathy. Unfortunately, I see a lot of that everywhere I go, and sometimes (sadly) I was the cause of it. It’s sad because at NO point in my past did I feel like I was doing the wrong thing. From my point of view, I was trying very, very hard to help. What I learned was how much you have to pay attention to people, their emotions, their circumstances, and definitely have empathy if you’re ever going to have a chance to help them.

Devolve Into Name Calling

I don’t like to generalize too much, but this one actually might help. This incredibly simplistic generalization is that leaders tend to self-select into 2 groups:

  • Change Agents
  • Managers / Stabilizers

Change Agents challenge the status quo and tend to feel good with ambiguity, breaking things apart and trying to affect the system in a positive way. Managers / Stabilizers are focused on effectively and efficiently operating the system and spend their time making everything work predictably, at reasonable cost, with low risk. Basically, change agents change broken systems and stabilizers run and perfect them. What I have learned over the years is that WE NEED BOTH. After all, you can’t constantly smash organizations to bits and rebuild everything. You also can’t “polish”systems that are deeply, or fundamentally flawed.

I have also learned that there are predictable tendencies between these two groups:

  1. Change Agents tend to look at Managers / Stabilizers as incapable of change, inept, lazy, and attribute behavior to personal characteristics (e.g. those people don’t know what they are doing!)
  2. Managers / Stabilizers tend to look at Change Agents as arrogant, emotionless villains who are only out for their own self-interest. Everything they do is seen as despotic and offensive. (e.g. that guy is an asshole!)

Essentially, organizations devolve into name calling and the Fundamental Attribution Error. This cognitive bias basically is placing a heavy emphasis on personality traits to explain someones behavior rather than thinking about external factors.

A Third Trait

A third trait needs to evolve if we are to ever get forward momentum in our organizations. We need Leaders. Leaders help others understand that empathy and understanding is critical, and people behave based on incentives, as well as intrinsic or extrinsic motivators. They also teach that diversity of thought is critical, and that organizations need heavy doses of both roles to be successful. Leaders help both sides (and the unlucky middle) understand why we need both types of people, and how to effectively coexist. In effect, they teach people about ecology.

I will be writing more about ecology in upcoming posts. In the meantime, let me know what you think!