Murdering empathy


Imagine the remotest tropical utopian island.

It is the island that is the coveted dream of every leader ,because on that island lies the formula to understand what success means…….?

What success means, to each of your Team members?

You yearn for that formula because if you have it ,you hold the key to authentically connecting with your team

Now imagine a raft. The raft will get you to that island, to the secret formula

That raft is empathy .

Now imagine sharks, yes great whites. Aka negative emotions and biases ,these are what the waters are full of.

They are trying to devour you or destroy your raft and then devour you.

An alternate term that I will use for those sharks is empathy killers.

Empathy killers are behaviors(fuelled by negative emotions and biases) that threaten your raft , the build of it , the existence of it.

The more you use or let these empathy killers exist in a working relationship the stronger will be the current of apathy that will take you away from the island , from making an authentic connection with someone in/outside your team.

Reflecting back on instances where I have been eaten by the sharks or I have fed someone to the sharks , I want to share the following empathy killers

Whenever as a leader you exercise any these behaviors ,empathy dies a little death.You drift away a little from that Team member who are struggling with their performance,from that peer with whom you are trying to mend fences, from that introverted person whom you can not convince about your strategy, from the business stakeholder who is failing to relate with the reasons why your Team can not keep their commitments.

This by no means is an exhaustive list , feel free to add your empathy killers to it .

  • Asserting that your problems or the company’s problems are bigger and more complex than theirs (just because you operate at a higher hierarchy level in the business)
  • Telling them that they don’t see the bigger picture (when they call out something which did not align with the company values charter pasted on the front door)
  • Taking it personally and giving back in the same coin (angry emails from them at 8 in the evening are responded by angry emails at 8:35 )
  • Raising things that they need to improve only when you are about to say no to something. 
  • Not being there due to lack of time. 
  • There but pretending to listen . 

[ Bonus material — What listening level are you at ? ]

  • Assessing their performance from a different lens than them. Especially without telling them which lens you are wearing and when?
  • Comparing. Yes ,comparing full stop. Comparing them with that high performing star in the Team as a means to justify your decision.
  • Quoting your (legitimately) vast (but invalid or unrelatable) experience to win the argument .

e.g. Because you have not worked at <x> you can not understand this.

  • Using glass half-empty as a motivation methodology .Corollary -> Also instilling fear of the glass being half empty, fear that it must not be broken, must not be filled with the wrong content or not being the type of vessel that you expected.

For a moment ,forgo metrics,forget numbers,forgo strategy,forget vision….just reflect on what your number one duty as a people leader is,

To create an emotionally safe environment where you can genuinely connect with your Team to understand what success means to them and where they can fearlessly connect with you to understand from where you are coming from.

Empathy, like charity begins at home . Start by being empathetic to your own emotions first, acknowledging them, questioning them, detecting patterns and then doing something about them.

I don’t claim to hold the secret formula from The Utopian island but I have started to know more about “my” great whites, learning to out maneuver them, learning to keep the raft safe.

Creativity , the heck ?

If you are failing to put your idea/thought/experience out there to be ridiculed as audacious

If you are failing to put your idea/thought/experience out there to be dismissed as infeasible

If you are failing to put your idea/thought/experience out there to be ignored as unoriginal

If you are failing to put your idea/thought/experience out there to be chided as nonconformist

then,you should seriously ask yourself why you are in the pursuit of anything creative ?

Creativity,starts by putting it out there ( to be ridiculed,dismissed,ignored and chided) and continuing to repeat it .




Going live


When there are no more bugs that need to triaged out as “no one will use it this way”

When there are no more end users who need convincing that “this is what it is and will be”

When there are no more apolitical voices to be ignored

When there are no more features left to turn into enhancement requests for future releases

When there are no more feasible workarounds left with the legacy product

Meet me there, because that is when, it will be time to “Go-Live”



Praise vs Recognition


“look papa,no hands”

“woohoo i did it dad”

“look ,look….it works now”

one of the most heart warming moments as a parent are moments like these,where my child achieved something that i thought they were not capable of.

as throbbing beings,we are naturally wired to be curious,to seek our limits and push them

and when we go past our limits we also naturally crave artefacts that reflect an appreciation of our feats.

is it praise that our children seek ? or recognition ?

praise,from my viewpoint,is vindication. Is confirmation of the stupendity of their efforts .

“way to go Etaash!!!! ”

“well done Ajooni,keep it up ☺ ”

i suspect that this is something that they are smart enough to know . it aint trivial Dad. i know i am good papa,huff.

what i feel really spurs children on is ,recognition .

recognition of the odds that they beat,the problem solving process that they applied,their collaboration with their siblings to achieve a common goal,a new personal precedent that they set

“wow Ajooni how did you do it !?”

“that is perfect balance dear Etaash,i can never do it myself”

“i have never seen that before,teach me how you fixed it! pleeeeaseeee!”

Praise is fleeting.

Timely,authentic and frequent recognition lasts.It leads to more,something new.

With kids and at our workplace.