She walked into my office as angry as I have ever seen her. “Do you have a minute to talk?” she asked. “Of course,” I replied. She began to tell me about the meeting she had just had with our boss. “He told me to lose my empathy gene! What does that mean?” she asked. I was stunned. That was never a comment I would have expected him to say nor was it one we had talked about. I thought he was going to talk with her about how she needed to make swifter performance decisions. That every day with someone who was not leading well was actually costing us business, retention of good performers, etc.
I asked her the context of the comment and it certainly was around one individual who was having tremendous performance issues and she was coaching and giving him time to improve. I flipped the conversation to be about what she could be doing to move this performance issue further along, to improve the performance or get to the spot where she could make the decision that this was not the right role for this man. She thought she was just about there. As we talked I realized that our bosses real issue was that it was taking her too long to make a decision he would have made already. And that he attributed that to the empathy she has as a person. What I found fascinating was that he had a lot of empathy as a person, so I wasn’t sure why he went that route, other than to shock her.
She agreed that she needed to make a decision and more quickly. We created a game plan at that moment and put a timeline together. But the comment stuck with me. Lose your empathy gene.
She never did by the way. She became a bit more decisive and pushed a bit faster but always with the empathy that a great leader should display. It wasn’t about her. She put herself in people’s shoes and thought about 1) what would motivate; 2) what would resonate and 3) what would she want. By putting yourself in someone’s shoes and seeing life or a situation from their perspective you allow yourself to think more creatively about solution, more creatively about how to move forward.
This isn’t just a thing you do at work. This is how to be human. There are so many quotes out there about walking a mile in someone’s shoes, or not judging if you have never been in that position, yet people don’t really see that you have to put yourself in someone’s shoes to understand why they are who they are, why they say what they say.
There are many studies that show that empathy is a leadership trait that sets people apart as leaders. I can tell you that the people I have worked for who have the ability to put themselves in other’s shoes have been the best leaders I have worked for. That also counts for just being a person. The friends I adore, the people I gravitate to are not focused on themselves. They are able to put themselves in someone else’s situation and reflect on what they would do.
Empathy is what I see missing today. People are so focused on their beliefs that they refuse to put themselves in anyone else’s shoes. I see people refusing to believe there is another shoe to put on! Only their opinion and their “facts” are appropriate and real. And by the way, I see this on both sides of the aisle, this is not about one group over another. People, in general, have become more “me-focused” with very little care to others and their ideals, opinions or view.
Empathy. This is where the human in human being comes through. This may even be what separates humans from other species, you know along with the thumb and brain thing! But this emotional ability to understand situations from another’s point of view, and considering things through more than your own lens is what I think is fundamental to being a caring, loving person. And this is what is missing in the world from where I sit. I don’t see loving, I don’t see caring and I certainly do not see people actually trying to look at things through another’s lens.
Is your empathy gene missing? Have we each forgotten that we are human beings first? I wonder.