WTF #7: Empathy

WTF #7: Empathy

Given all the recent chit-chat about the humanities and “soft” skills, coupled with the fact that I’ll soon be moving into management myself, I thought it’d be a good time to discuss one very important specific soft skill in the workplace: Empathy.

Do you care? Do you care about your fellow colleagues? Your boss? Your subordinates? A seasoned software manager writes in his blog, Stevey’s Blog Rants, that his number one tip for managers is empathy. Seems like a perfectly reasonable, perfectly human ability to possess, even for stereotypical introverted, socially-awkward engineers.

According to a white paper by the Center for Creative Leadership, empathy has a direct correlation on job performance, although the strength of this correlation is culture dependent. North America and most European countries have a medium correlation between empathy and job performance while South American countries have a low correlation. Countries and locales in the Sinosphere — China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia — have a high correlation. Given that I’m transferring to China soon, it’s good to know such general trends.

So what does good empathy look like and what does bad empathy look like? Back in December last year, our satellite design office was shut down. The announcement was made in person by someone two levels up the hierarchy from engineers, but our manager, who works in another city, knew about this action ahead of time. Our former manager also heard the news the same day the whole team did.

On that day, we received both e-mails and phone calls from our old manager. He voiced his opinion regarding the shortsightedness of the office shut-down and expressed his concern for our employment prospects. Quite touching, really. So that’s good empathy.

On the same day, our current manager promptly cancelled all of our group and one-on-one meetings for the rest of the week via email. For over a week, we didn’t hear a word from our manager. Nothing. There wasn’t even a brief email to acknowledge the fact that the entire team just got laid off. And when our manager could no longer afford to ignore us, the first call he made to one of the team members was to discuss the progress of the project. My colleague had to bring up the issue of getting laid off himself and got a “yeah, that’s too bad” response. How hard could it be to bring the team together in one teleconference call and just spend 15 minutes saying a few words drawn from the standard stock of business-speak catch phrases? It took over a month(!) before our manager got around to making verbal contact with each of us individually — all 5 of us. Of course, he never brought up the office closure. So that’s bad empathy, by far the worst I’ve ever seen in the nine managers that I’ve worked under so far in my career.

When trying to extract wisdom from the actions of others, it’s important to learn from both their successes and failures. And if there’s one thing I’ve taken away from this episode of managerial empathy, it’s this: be nice and don’t be a prick.

I hope this works in China.

What The Flux is a semi-regular weekendish feature on that follows the follies and jollies of an engineer in industry, yours truly.


I spent a few weeks in our China offices a couple of years back and was surprised to see how well they got on. I was expecting much more of a “command and control” type regime, strongly hierarchical. Instead, I got the impression that they worked well together and respected each other for what they were (respect being the necessary sister of empathy).

I suppose it helped that work was their whole life (they lived in apartment blocks together, went on vacations together), but nevertheless it was a pleasant surprise.

It was also a direct contrast to Japan and especially Korea, where the boss is God.

The biggest challenge that I see for a manager is combining empathy, respect and leadership, the latter being the ability to motivate and direct a team in directions they don’t necessarily initially want to go.

Looking forward to your future posts on your experiences!

In my visit to our China office a few years ago, I was also surprised by the casualness of everyone in both dress (some in shorts/sandals) and demeanor. Although I think I was offered more deferential treatment by my Chinese colleagues than what I would find here, they certainly seemed to open up in more intimate settings, where even touchy political topics such as Taiwan and the freedom of speech were openly discussed with an outsider like myself.

Fluxor- good luck with your next move!

Along with empathy, I think straightforwardness is important. There are a lot of managers who listen to what you have to say, promise change or results, then nothing happens.

Managers should not make up platitudes for reassurance, we are smart enough to know when they are “white lying”.

As an engineer and human being, ethical behavior is important to me.
Once a manager has made something up, or promised something not delivered, my trust for that manager is gone.

I certainly agree with straightforwardness. In fact, I called up an ex-director of mine last night to discuss my upcoming move. I value his input because he was such a straight talker when I worked for him.

I do, however, differ slightly on your last point regarding ethical behaviour. Making stuff up may be unethical, but under-delivering on a promise is usually not. People do try and fail, or the promise delivered was simply overwhelmed by higher priority items. Trust has two components — competence and intent. Ethical behaviour falls on the intent side, but we as human beings often attribute a failure in competence in someone to poor intent. It’s hard to distinguish one from the other, and that’s where I think the manager’s communication skills come into play. An honest failure is much easier to swallow than outright deceit.

For 8 years I worked for a small company whose owner (and my boss) had no emotional intelligence whatsoever. He was terrible at reading people, didn’t understand interactions and reactions very well, and didn’t really comprehend sarcasm without being told. As a result, he had little to no empathy towards his employees. Most of his interactions were canned, which might have been okay if he hadn’t been pulling from the wrong “book.” Some would confront him, call him out, and some of us would just deal with it – which is a bad approach. This is fine for a while, but it wears a person down in the long term. Since he didn’t see the value of giving feedback (positive or negative), we had to learn to be self-sufficient and sustaining. We would be forced to make decisions on our own. We felt that the decisions we would make were best for the business, only to be overridden by him for reasons that had no rationale, and were often detrimental to the company.

This experience, if nothing else, showed me the true value of empathy as a leader. You have to be willing to have open discussions, even if they are difficult. Your manager should have communicated with everyone on the team, thus giving them value as employees and letting their voices be heard. This is the difference between leaving on good terms, with respect and understanding, and forever despising the company you once worked for. Sticking your head in the sand is never a productive option, but it is one that is all too familiar to me.

Empathy is also key in making decisions within teams. Engineers have a tendency to take time for processing something new before contributing, even though they might still have initial reactions that can often be subtle. If you as a leader can’t decipher these moments, you might be missing valuable viewpoints. Over the years, companies and researchers have tried many different techniques to elucidate unique viewpoints from teams during brainstorming sessions (anonymizing sessions, t-charts, imposing rules, etc.) when probably all that is required is a leader with empathy.

Sorry to hear about your experience, just know that it unfortunately sounds all too familiar.

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