Empathy is a word being highlighted as an essential part of successful 21st Century organizations and a key element of good leadership. I think it is safe to say that we wouldn’t get too many arguments about that. And, I think that for the most part we also understand what the word empathy really means. For review, (and for fun), Audrey Hepburn defines it pretty well (Fred Astaire’s presumptions aside).
Somehow though, I think there is a great difference between understanding what empathy means on a between-the-ears basis and achieving an appreciation deep enough to more easily put ourselves in another person’s place and respond effectively.
But why is it important to go deeper you may ask? Well, let me try to address that question by describing a place where empathy did not live. I’m not sure if it ever lived there but if it did, somewhere along the way, it simply left the room… probably in disgust.
It was in the early seventies. I was a clerk for the foreign exchange Trading section of a major bank. I didn’t normally spend all of my day in the Trading Room. In fact, my desk was usually on another floor but, on this one occasion, the computers were down and I was required to actually sit in the Trading Room recording transactions manually and balancing them at the end of the day.
The Foreign Exchange Trading Room was a highly charged place. Split second transactions made the difference between profit and loss, win and lose. The atmosphere constantly buzzed with activity. I was there for a week and my job was mundane enough to afford me the luxury of sitting, mostly unnoticed, as the Traders went about their jobs and interacted with each other.
The Chief Trader was a middle-aged, somewhat round, somewhat balding fellow with a big booming voice and an ego to match. He shouted a lot. He swore a lot. His temper was unprecedented. I watched as he blasphemed and cursed his way from one end of the day to the next. I watched as he threw his telephone viciously against the console of his desk and launch himself into a full-blown temper tantrum because someone had failed to yield to his demand.
I watched as some in the room became withdrawn, trying to get through the day without being a target for a sarcastic or derogatory remark. I noticed too, those who followed the Chief Trader’s lead and behaved obnoxiously and without thought toward each other and people who entered the room simply to deliver things or take things away.
In among all of this toxic air was Elsie. Elsie was the Gold Trader. Her permanent desk was in the Trading Room along with the others. There were two other women in the room but Elsie was the oldest. I expect she might have been about fifty. Small and refined and perhaps a little plain (by Trading Room Standards anyway), she went about her work with diligence and in quiet dignity. During my stay in the Trading Room, hardly a day went by when someone did not make a deeply embarrassing remark toward Elsie, especially about her age and appearance. Elsie seemed to bear all of this abuse, allowing the words thrown at her to roll off her back. But looks are indeed deceiving and the words were wounding. No one seemed to understand or care about how Elsie might be feeling. They expected her to go along with the “joke”. And she did. None of us really knows what it must have cost her.
The other two women in the room chose to behave like the men. They swore a lot too. They too, made sarcastic remarks to each other and to anyone else who was in range. People outside the Trading Room thought them hard and bitter and perhaps they were, but I suspect they were just trying to survive because they had no hope of ever being understood.
My week in the Trading Room ended with a relief that was palpable. On reflection, there were a lot of dysfunctional things going on in the room that week but, to me, their source could all be traced to a room totally devoid of any kind of empathy. And, when empathy leaves the room, it has a way of taking dignity, respect and civility with it.
In these times, there are rules and edicts meant to govern and guard against the kind of behaviour described here but, to me, 21st Century leaders can really only be truly successful if they are willing to stand in another’s shoes as a matter of common practice; seek to feel, understand and simply care, without the prod that such rules produce.