When Empathy Leaves the Room

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I watched as some in the room became withdrawn, trying to get through the day without being a target for a sarcastic or derogatory remark.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.

What do you think?

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14 Comments

Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, organizational Development

14 responses to “When Empathy Leaves the Room

  1. Your post really stayed with me. I had to come back for a second read. A few years ago I came to the shocking realization that I had contributed to a colleague’s distress. I wasn’t really listening to the conversation but picked up on the laughter cue appended to a comment. I joined in and laughed with the rest. That’s when I saw her tears and realized I was part of something cruel. It reminds me of what happens with practical jokes. There is always a butt of the joke, some poor person who will be made to look foolish – all so that the rest of us can laugh. A little empathy would sure take us a long way toward building better relationships and developing humor that doesn’t hurt others.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan, in looking back on my posts I see that I failed to respond to your comment. Not sure how that happened but the irony is not lost on me given the subject of the post. My apologies for not acknowledging your very candid and heartfelt words.
      It takes a lot to recognize when we are part of something that causes someone else discomfort or pain. The good news is that noticing our own poor behaviour is a pretty big step because is allows us to choose differently the next time.
      Thank you for sharing your story here.
      Gwyn

  2. As it happens, Rob & I were having a conversation at breakfast yesterday about empathy; how it always comes back to that one critical factor, and how there’s far too little of it in evidence at times. I think we all know first-hand how de-motivating it is to work somewhere that’s devoid of empathy. I just finished reading another post (about Darth Vader, who motivated his underlings in entirely the opposite way!) that mentioned studies that have shown that people perform better on tasks after an ego boost. I wish more leaders would understand that positive feedback and empathy go a long way towards fostering loyalty and hard work.

    Thanks for the post. Food for thought, as always!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Leslie ~ yes, it seems such a simple concept doesn’t it? It’s curious that while as you say, “we all know first-hand how de-motivating it is to work somewhere that’s devoid of empathy”, we apparently don’t “all know” what it takes to create an environment that includes it. Go figure.
      Thanks for bringing your voice to the discussion. I always enjoy your perspective on things.

  3. Gwyn Teatro

    Susan, Thanks for sharing your story. I don’t really think there is anyone who can say there has never been a time when they did not laugh at someone’s else’s expense.
    The difference between those who do it as a matter of practice,without thought, and those who do it during moments of lapsed judgement speaks, I think, to the degree to which they value and practice empathy in their lives.
    Like you, I believe that empathy is a key driver in building good relationships and a quality that is imperative in anyone who leads others.
    Thanks so much for coming by 🙂

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  5. Rob

    Just to echo Leslie’s thoughts, referencing as she’s done our conversation about workplace empathy, I truly believe that empathy is what will save the world, not just the 21st Century workplace. As soon as we figure out empathy, and incorporate it into our lives to its logical conclusion, there will be little room for blind ambition, greed, and bullying. Of course, a great place to start is with leaders in whatever capacity that is, whether line managers or leaders of nations.

    Thanks for this timely post – timely just because we were just talking about it!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Thanks for adding your voice here, Rob. Yes, in an ideal world, we would all be better off if we each worked on our personal “empathizers” (a new word??).
      And, I agree that those in leadership roles have an opportunity to model the way for those who follow. I think too, that parents, as leaders, have a special responsibility to help their children know the value of empathy in their own lives. After all if we grow up with it, its application tends to become that much easier in adulthood.
      Thanks again. It’s always nice to see you here 🙂

  6. Beautifully put Gwyn. There is a saying I heard long ago: “you can’t hate someone whose story you know.” To be empathetic we must be interested in the people with whom we interact for how can we possibly put ourselves in their world if we don’t know something meaningful about who they are?

    Empathy is fundamental to healthy human systems. Yet we have spent so much time beating the humanity out of people in organizations. The kind of abuse of power your story depicts is just one of the many ways we have done that. That kind of behavior mindlessly trains people to at best stay in their box and at worst to model the destructive behavior.

    I think you are right on that empathy is essential to success – it is also a way that ANYONE can provide leadership.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Susan, It seems so simple “You can’t hate someone whose story you know”. And yet, when I think about it, it is often the simple truths, simply stated, that can have a powerful impact on how we see things and ultimately how we choose to behave.
      Thank you for adding your thoughts. The post is richer because of them.

  7. Gwyn, so pleased to see you writing on empathy. I think we are at a turning point – in the workplace and in the larger culture – will we align ourselves with our hard-wired tendency towards empathy and altruism or with the aggression that is driven by the fear from our flight or fight response? The recent info that comes from neuroscience points the way to the need for a completely new emphasis and style in management and workplace relationships. Unfortunately, too many leaders are still operating from old models and an aversion to “soft skills” which keep them from understanding the benefits of hard science findings.
    From what I see in the workplace, people are longing for more dignity, respect and civility – and empathy is the path to it!
    Thanks – a timely post!
    Louise

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Louise, I agree. Perhaps the more we talk about these “softer Skills” the more those who view them as of secondary importance will begin to revise their opinions.
      Thank you for coming by and for your usual insightful remarks.

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