Big Empathy

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 muscle.

Managers, want some basic best practices on performance management and feedback?   I’ve got resources:

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

On Changing The World

As doors close behind her, tech executive and writer Stacy-Marie Ishmael contemplates turning 30.

Including this:

I worry that I have not changed the world.


Speaking from the furthest edge of Gen X, my peers and I couldn’t fathom changing the world in our 20s.  We grew up and entered adulthood during some tough years.  We had bigger worries.  Like finding jobs.

And frankly, we had seen how the whole world-changing thing had worked out for Boomers.

Thank goodness.

“Changing the world” as goal?   That pressure might be unbearable.

Instead, I’d invite a different view.

Chris Hadfield learned to fly when he was a teenager.   He studied mechanical engineering, became a test pilot, and astronaut.  His track record exemplifies applied discipline and excellence.

Somewhere in there, he also learned to play the guitar.

David Bowie had a serious arts education. He started playing in bands in his teens, and studied dance, mime and theatre.  In his early 20s, he imagined himself into an astronaut’s spacesuit, and “Space Oddity” was released to coincide with the 1969 moon landing.

Two children followed their curiosity, passion, and hearts.  With rigor and discipline.  More than 40 years later, millions of micro-decisions resulted in a most unlikely collaboration between artist and astronaut.

“Space Oddity” could have been a moon-landing novelty that passed from public consciousness.  (Remember Tang, or ball-point pens that write when upside down?)

Instead, Major Tom endures.

Maybe because he speaks to the combination of futility and hope we all feel about our work.   Even astronauts!

That’s empathy.  It’s a universal human quality.   A quality we often explore through the arts.

Millions of kids have now seen Chris Hadfield embody Major Tom.  One day, one of these children may step foot on Mars.

That’s world changing.

But 40 years ago, it’s hard to imagine Bowie or Hadfield — or their parents and teachers — envisioning this outcome.   Could this result have been a goal?

We’re all creating the world.   Every single day.   With our families.   With our co-workers and friends.   With each person who handed us our coffee this morning, or held the elevator door for us.

Changing the world isn’t a goal.   It’s a result.

(And honestly, today some efforts that set out to “change the world” are looking to have some pretty chilling unintended consequences.)

Instead, create the world.   One day at a time.  One act at a time.

Make art, or study it.  Teach, or support a teacher.  Practice empathy.

Just like Bowie and Hadfield, you can do all of this through your work.

And then let’s check in 40 years down the road.   That’s when we’ll see how it all turns out.