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.

Can You Care Too Much?


A recent HBR blog post asks, “Can You Overdo People Skills?”

Authors Robert Kaiser and Robert Kaplan point to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s assessment of Abraham Lincoln:

Lincoln’s greatest flaw came out of his strength, which was generally liking people and not wanting to hurt them.

Kaiser and Kaplan explain that strong people skills may be problematic.   “Caring leaders” with “strong people skills”, they say, may not be direct with people about their performance.   And they may wait too long to act.

Hmm.   This isn’t how I see people skills.

Strong people skills begin with the will to have difficult conversations, at the right time.  Refined people skills enable you to navigate these conversations while balancing kindness and candor.

In doctors, we call this skill “bedside manner.”

Would you rather have a doctor who told you the truth, and helped you to recover?  Or one who cared too much to hurt your feelings?

It’s not an either/or situation.   And yet, developing this manner takes some practice.   (Ask anyone I managed twenty years ago.)

If someone on your team isn’t performing, letting them flounder isn’t just unwise.  It’s unkind.  To your employee, their teammates, your organization.   And to you.

In some circles, they’d call this Dumb Compassion.

You can care too much about being liked.   You can’t care too much about being respected.

You can care too much about whether it will hurt someone to hear feedback.  You can’t care too much about telling the truth.

And you absolutely can’t care too much about helping your people to do a good job.  Even when doing so means telling having conversations that make you feel uncomfortable.

Photo:  Abraham Lincoln memorial by Gage Skidmore, used under Creative Commons license.