Empathy is making us miserable
The benefits of working for a hardass
Like a once great fashion label now stocking the shelves of TJ Maxx, empathy has been watered down from a powerful personal kindness to a widespread performative act which does more harm than good.
Empathy, as we were taught in grade school, is the ability to imagine yourself walking in another person’s shoes. An act of empathy is a mood lifter. Like someone chasing after you to return the jacket you forgot back at the restaurant. Doesn’t that hand-off feel great?
Unfortunately for us all, empathy has been distorted from a personal act into an amorphous machine that’s taking over Corporate America. Behold, Capital-E Empathy: a strategy wielded by management in an effort to drive business outcomes while making sure you feel good in the process.
CEOs of Fortune 500 companies insist that empathy is at the core of what they do. I only need to spend a minute scrolling my LinkedIn feed to see this. These Captains of Industry want you to know how much their publicly-traded enterprises care.
Companies increasingly track employee satisfaction as a metric. Both to score higher in the ‘Social’ category of ESG ratings and because there is evidence that a happier workforce is a more productive one.
In an effort to boost satisfaction and reduce attrition, the Empathy machine tries to turn a genuine personal act into a commodity. But it’s not working. People are unhappier than ever in their jobs.
Half-assing it has become so commonplace that it’s been given a formal title: “Quiet Quitting.”
Managers across organizations are being trained to “lead with empathy.” It feels like bullshit because it is – and if you speak with people in private, they readily admit as much. You simply cannot commodify the personal or the profound. Nor can you feasibly empathize at scale.
Putting yourself in the shoes of each and every person you deal with at work would be a full-time job in-and-of itself. In fact, it is. It’s called being a therapist.
The boss-as-friend who wants to know “how you’re doing” works until it doesn’t. It becomes harder to address any real issues that arise until they grow so large that they can’t be ignored. In this environment any sort of criticism, no matter how small, feels like a personal attack.
Like opening a new Blockbuster Video in the 2010s, companies are going all-in on Empathy in the face of growing dissatisfaction. If there is to be any reversal to the trend of “Quiet Quitting,” it can only come through instilling a sense of discipline and maintaining an environment of high standards. You could even call it “leading with work.”
True satisfaction at the office is an outcome of being productive. It is through being challenged that we do our best work and grow as professionals.
I know this in part because one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for was a complete hardass.
I was in my first job out of college at an investment bank focused on the defense industry. The woman that ran the group had serious power. She spent her days advising CEOs on how to deploy capital and build their companies.
She didn’t get into that seat by being nice, but through sweat equity and delivering serious results throughout her career. You’d consider yourself lucky to get a nod if you passed her in the hallway. And it was great.
There were no false pretenses. She simply cared that the work I produced met her exceedingly high standards. As someone new to the working world, this was edifying. It kept me on my toes and forced me to perform at a level I didn’t know I was capable of.
To this day I remember the first time she complimented my work, and it was hardly more than a brusque “good job” on her way out of a conference room. I also remember her kindness when my grandfather died.
Being demanding and being decent are not mutually exclusive. In fact, you become more genuine because moments of empathy aren’t part of a management scheme. There is a reason that a Patek Philippe is more valuable than a Timex.
Had she instead “led with empathy,” it would have been strange. And there is no way I would have worked as hard. It’s human nature. When your manager asks you to do the dishes “whenever you have a moment,” you take your time and miss a few stains. When the guy who signs your paycheck grunts at you to “wash ‘em,” you turn into Mr. Clean.
You may not want to get dinner with a hardass boss. At least not at first. But you’ll know what they expect and you’ll grow to respect them for it. As you prove yourself, you may even grow to like them.
And when the day comes that you’re dealing with something truly difficult, the empathy they show you will be all the more powerful.