One of the most frustrating things I come across a lot at work is lack of empathy. It was particularly noticeable when I was working for a corporation a few years ago. We had gone through a very stressful period in my department and coupled with compressed project schedules and a lot riding on the product we were designing. Chucked in the mix were a few personally ambitious people and we had a pretty explosive cocktail, the kind of cocktail the therapist I was seeing at the time liked to call toxic.
I have pretty strong views on what a manager should do and what kind of support they should be giving the people who work for them, and how they should be treat the people reporting to them. I had the luxury about ten years ago to be handed over to a manager whom I had absolutely no respect for at the time of the handover, but who taught me the most important lesson about managing people that I could ever learn: having empathy.
M, as we will call him, was in a position where he was not exactly shining when he was transferred into a business process manager position. Part of the package was being my line manager.
Our first one on one meeting was a half hour long and he asked me to describe my job. I just spewed it out at him in a long tirade. It was not like he was going to really get it, right?
To my great surprise after that meeting I received an e-mail from him listing five things that he thought was my five top challenges in relation to doing my job smoothly. He asked me how he could help me remove or lessen the impact of those obstacles, in other words, how could he be of assistance to me.
It floored me. Firstly, this guy whom I had no respect for at all had listened so well he had already figured out that even if my team was enormously successful we could do even better if I just got more support. Secondly, he was willing to do something. Thirdly, there seemed to be no obvious reason for him going out of his way to do it.
Our next meeting ended up a little differently. I walked in there with a lot more respect for him but I felt I needed to ask him why he had chosen to show that he was there to support me straight off the bat. "Listen," he said, "it's really simple. I have no idea what you do and how you do it but I've been asked to manage you. You obviously do a really good job and I want you to continue doing a good job or to do an even better job. When you look good it makes me look good so I have every reason in the world to support you as much as I can. In fact, supporting you is the only thing I can do here since me telling you how to do your job would be insane and make me look stupid."
Turns out this guy was incredibly smart, and obviously psychologically astute. He had spent time working for classy organizations like Doctors Without Borders. What he did not do though was grandstand, ever!
However, he did spend a lot of time empathizing with people. When he fell foul of his eventual boss, a boss who liked to give what M referred to as "impromptu public performance reviews" (it usually take the form of shouting at someone in an open office environment to embarrass them and show how powerful you are) he took it in his stride. He seemed to have empathy with that guy too like he understood that underneath all the grandstanding was a hurting and scared human being.
So, while I was thinking back to that time I started thinking about this thing we do as a society when we start in on refugees or any other group of people for that matter. It is a big thing here in Australia what with the very public scare campaign teaching us to fear the "boat people", like they are an organized gang of seasoned criminals arriving at our shores in barely seaworthy boats to officially seek asylum while they plot whatever nasty it is they plot to do. The government spends a lot of time and money to make us think that it is not a matter of these people being refugees but that they are really here to steal our whole bloody country and our national identity with it.
It bothers me. The history of the world is full of examples of lack of empathy on a grand scale (slavery anyone?) and the human ability to turn others into something you should not care about because they are something you are not. Making a distinction between people depending on where they come from, what color they are, what religion they practice or what language they speak, or even their level of education or age, that is stuff of the every day in our world. Economic distinction and the very real segregation between rich and poor, the have and have-nots, that is run of the mill stuff.
To me it is not only a sad state of affairs but I think it is the one thing that stands in our own personal way of actuating our own happiness and contentment. This view we have of the world that it is unfair to us and that we must grab what we can before someone else takes it from us is really warped. It keeps ambitious and greedy people doing bad things to others without second thought, and it stops them from growing as individuals. Worst of all, we are taught to buy into that world view on a much greater scale than we can possibly imagine.
The one thing that was instrumental in my recovery from depression and anxiety was learning to be compassionate with and have empathy for myself. It had a flow on effect. Once you learn to be compassionate with and have empathy for yourself it becomes a lot harder not to practice the same with others. Once you feel understood and heard then it is easier to understand and hear others, and while we often look for that from others it really starts with us doing it with and for ourselves.
To walk in someone's shoes is to learn to understand them but quite often we are not even present enough to walk in our own shoes so to speak. We run around full of opinions about the world and how it should be, and what we are in that world, but very seldom do we stop and ask how we are actually doing and feeling about what is happening to us and around us. To stop and feel, and to notice that you do not feel all that good and to have the courage to not turn away from it, to distract yourself or to numb yourself, but to listen to it and have empathy with it and feel compassion for yourself is a life changing experience. It is more life changing than when your boss turns around and shows empathy with you personally rather than saying "we're all in the same boat".
Empathy. If you are not getting it from others do it for yourself. Let us start there and then we change the world, you and I together one person at them.