The Trial of Empathy

March 3, 2019

I’ve been working with some managers lately who struggle with a variety of challenges. Like many folks, when faced with a challenge they tend to dig in their heels rather than seek change. Trying to advocate change to folks in this situation is hard. Nobody wants to hear about creative alternatives. They have big problems to solve and are feeling tremendous pressure. The existing processes are often making their lives even worse. People aren’t collaborating, work is constantly in progress and never done. It really sucks. You’d think that if you walked in the door and offered a viable way to relieve the pain, you’d be treated like a hero.

But that’s just not the case.

It’s much more likely that you will be summarily kicked out of the office. Why is that? There you are with the answer to their problems, why won’t anybody listen? First, they want help. The best way to accomplish that is to dive right in and pick up a shovel. Of course that’s really unpleasant. But they need to understand that you grasp the current state of affairs deeply, and the only way I know of to do that is to ride the dragon with them. It’s terrifying, but you need to earn their trust first. Once you have that, you can begin to show them the alternatives in small ways. You model the behavior that you want to bring. And then you can both evaluate the results – as equals. You both look at what you have done and ask the question, “Is this good enough?” If the answer is yes, then you can bet that they are in.

But there is a catch – You have to join them in the soup. And that is not very much fun. You have to share the burden and experience the same sort of pain that they do. Perhaps this is why I often find myself shying away from these situations. I really don’t want to feel the pain (if I’m honest anyhow). I’m not really interested in feeling that kind of pressure. It sucks and everyone knows it. But sometimes it’s necessary. I see coaches sometimes who are playing the sidelines but not getting into the game. They are content to play a prescriptive role – why? Because getting in the game hurts.

Sometimes that’s why empathy is hard.