I find your lack of empathy disturbing

posted by Jeff | Sunday, August 13, 2017, 10:38 AM | comments: 0

If you've seen the Internets in the last few days, you may have heard that this dude at Google got fired for writing a very long piece about how diversity efforts at the company are ill-conceived because women suffer from "neuroticism" and other apparent personality defects, and maybe that's why there aren't as many women writing code or working in technology. Certainly there is cause to talk about the absurdity of using "science" to make this case, and also the general morality of how humans treat other humans against logic, science, religion and other dimensions of our existence. We could talk about the need to pursue diversity, too. I'm not a good candidate for talking about those areas, because I'm pretty inflexible when it comes to people who disqualify subsets of humanity for anything, really. I've never been very good at finding empathy for that scenario.

So let me talk about empathy, and the single hardest thing I've had to work on in my ongoing journey as a developing human being.

My junior year of college, I was an RA on a floor with an openly gay freshman. I don't know if that's unusual today, but in 1993 at a rural Midwest school, honestly I felt like his safety was at risk. At some point, some people vandalized his door with all kinds of homophobic slurs, and I called a floor meeting. I laid into the residents with a fury of anger, with no regard to how anyone may take it. In retrospect, the vandal may not have even been on my floor. I lost half of the floor that day, because I had no regard for how people would take being accused of something they likely didn't do.

A few years later, in my first "real" job after college, I learned about a lack of empathy on the other end. I was almost three years in when I made a pitch for a raise, based on the salary of my peers in neighboring communities and national averages. As a government operation, I answered to a committee of people, one of whom was a teacher. His response was that we all made choices, being a teacher was hard, and I had to live with my own choices. Shortly thereafter, the high school principal explained that she didn't care for my strategic direction or desire to ethically shield the department from the politicians. That was fine, except that she said the root of the issue was that she saw me as one of her students. (I was 26.) These interactions clearly had no empathy, and the fact that I had hired someone myself made me more sensitive to the idea that you have to exercise empathy with your people or the good ones will leave.

I wish I could say that empathy was always at the top of my list for me in dealing with others going forward, but it was not. Nowhere was this more obvious than countless mistakes made while coaching volleyball. I realize that trying to manage and be considerate of the feelings of a dozen teenagers is potentially impossible, but sometimes it wasn't even on my radar, and I'm thankful that some of those "kids" even still talk to me.

It didn't end there. My empathetic score card wasn't great in my first marriage, and it's super hard with a kid who is wired a little differently.

Why is empathy so important? Because your words matter. We all have different experiences, and we need to be self-aware of how our words affect others. This isn't about being politically correct, because that term has been co-opted by people looking for an enemy, when originally it just meant not being an asshole toward your fellow humans.

I can leave a little room for the idea that the ex-Google dude really believed he was making a scientific argument, but if he really wanted to discuss the pros and cons of diversity in the workplace, he made the absolute worst case for even having that discussion.


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