Big Empathy


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9198798785_df14769549_zEmpathy is not a leadership skill.   It’s not a brand attribute.   It’s not a software design principle.

It’s a natural human quality that enables us to imagine walking in another person’s shoes.

It comes up at work powerfully when we need to have a tough conversation.  When someone is failing, disrupting relationships, or in the wrong role.

Everyone wants to perform well, and to be part of the team.  (If you think otherwise, leading people might not be your strong suit.)

When someone is not doing well at work, they’re not burnishing their resume — they’re burning career time.  Time that they’ll never get back.

The person who’s underperforming usually knows that something’s not right.  Even if he don’t know what it is, or what to do about it.

When this goes on for long enough, other people pick up on it, too.   Sometimes they tiptoe around it.   Or they snipe, gossip and and grumble.   It becomes the elephant in the room.

This is both inefficient and ineffective.

For everyone.

If one of your team members is underperforming, don’t let him flounder because you don’t want him to feel upset when you talk about it.

That’s so much smaller than empathy.

Clear, direct feedback that will help him to improve is the best demonstration of your empathy.

If you don’t know how to deliver the feedback, script it out.   Practice it with your manager, a trusted peer, or your HR lead.

When it comes to managing people, and being a leader at work, you need to enact the largest empathy you can see.

Either help your team member to do a better job, or help him to to move along.  That shows empathy for your team member, their teammates, and the organization’s stakeholders.

And if your future plans involve continuing to lead people, “having a difficult conversation” will come up again and again.

There’s no time like now to build this critical skill.

Photo: Elephant Close-up by the Wildlife Alliance, via Flickr, under Creative Commons license 2.0.

How I Read About Management

booksUntil the internet, most of what you read about managing people at work was at least average.

Now, on average, it’s pretty terrible.   I’ve written a bit about this before.

Your best go-to resources are human beings who have relevant experience.   True yesterday, true today.

This is a mantra I’ve been chanting in emerging organizations since the 00s.

In 2014, I posted my people management “syllabus.”   (Ironically, on the internet.)

It’s a list of articles, books, and videos I’ve used with leaders as they develop their People skills.  It’s an adjunct to my #Management Intensive program.

It’s also out there for anyone to fork and use.

After posting the syllabus, when reading, I started to consider, “Should I add this to the syllabus?   Why?”

Here’s a bit more of my thinking:

  • Is it true — in my lived experience?
  • How will it be useful to someone who is learning to manage people?
  • What experience lends credibility to the author?
  • (Do I have any qualifications, caveats or disclaimers?)

Truth  Human nature will out.  Once you’ve been managing people for 10,000 hours, you’ll see patterns in how you work with people:  there are a limited number of common management “use cases.”

So you won’t find anything on my syllabus about “Working with a Psychopath.”  Those articles abound.  It’s an unlikely problem, and one you shouldn’t borrow.

Usefulness  A good resource should be evergreen:  true 20 years ago, and likely to hold true in the future.

It’s got to be practical, tactical, and harmlessly generalize-able to situations that will be encountered by most emerging managers.

I also consider whether someone could use the resource in the absence of human intervention.  So, “How to fire someone” isn’t on my syllabus.

Big stories that illuminate an idea or a concept can also be useful.   The Devil Wears Prada (film) has some fantastic management lessons.

Credibility   I like resources from experienced leaders.  People with specific technical expertise, or a wealth of topical academic research.   I also follow a couple of journalists who cover leadership/management, writers who seem to just get it.

You won’t find much from people with less than 10 years of leadership experience.  Maybe some of the less experienced voices you see opining on the internet are #management visionaries.   Time will tell.  For now, I’m counting them as “learning in public.”

Qualification  A participant in my #Management Intensive shared a resource on conflict resolution.  Using case studies, the authors set forth a framework and suggest practical action.

One case study is pretty nuanced.   In my view, it’s better fodder for real life discussion with an experienced manager or HR exec, and not a jumping off point for an emerging manager.

It’s a wonderful book.  I’ve been wrestling with whether to include it — with this caveat.

The syllabus is a living document.   I’ll continue to refine my inclusion criteria.  Writing this blog post will send me back to take a harder look at the syllabus.

Because I’m learning in public, too.

Many thanks to Mike Useem and Ed Bernbaum, who taught me so much about learning and teaching from stories.   Gary Chou, on learning in public and whose syllabus gave me the idea to post my own.   Tressie McMillan Cottom, whose blog post How I Read “Between the World and Me” inspired me to think about how I was reading/recommending.

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