My Journey to Empathy

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While this is and will remain primarily a blog about my ongoing ballroom dance experiences, from time to time, I’ve decided to sprinkle in other stories as things happen.  Believe it or not, there is more to me than just dancing and I guess maybe it is time to share some more to give you more insight into the man behind these words.  Or maybe I just enjoy talking about myself.  Who knows?  But, as I’ve said before, it is my blog and I get to make the rules!

I started my work life as an “individual contributor” meaning I had no management responsibilities. I’m not bragging but I was good at that.  It fit my strengths – see a problem, solve a problem.  Like many people who are very good at technical jobs, the company decided that the next logical step in my career progression was to be put in charge of people.  I decided I wanted the job because I wanted to have some additional responsibilities and wanted the authority to do things my way (I was naive back then).

This is the typical path in most corporations and most likely to be true in the science/technology areas.  But what makes you a good individual contributor does not make you a good manager.  There are probably a gazillion books and articles out there on management/leadership and some people have made a career out of dispensing that type of advice.  Again, I’m not sure that anyone can really validate who is an “expert” but people claim they are and others buy into it and you sell lots of books and give lots of nice speeches.  Unfortunately, I think most people simply read the books and go “yeah this is great” and then “and I’m already doing it so I’m good” and so they don’t really embrace the message.

Since I’m big into self-discovery, and because I wanted to do a good job, I read a lot of those books when I first started.  One point really stuck with me.  You can have all the benefits and amenities in the world but a person’s manager has the most correlation with how they feel about their job.  Given a choice, most people would prefer to work for someone who genuinely cares about them.  Its like the classic Bob Seger song “Feel Like a Number” with the line “The boss can’t even recall my name”. Who wants that?

So, my basic goal was to not be the pointy haired boss from Dilbert.  So I will give you my management style in one sentence and save you the trouble of buying and reading all those books.  Ready?  Here it is:

Don’t be an A-Hole

Now, I’ve said before that I’m an introvert and a pretty strong one at that.  In my individual contributor days, I could sit at my desk and run analysis and generally not be bothered.  But, become a manager, and that behavior just makes you unapproachable and someone people are scared to talk to.  (Yes, people used to be afraid of me – I had one younger lady who broke out whenever I had to talk with her).  The hardest thing I had to do was to put myself out there and start doing what they call “managing by walking around” which meant actually talking with the people who work for me.  Scary stuff!  I’m still not the best at it and there are many conversations that just end awkwardly because small talk is not my specialty.  But I would say I’ve been able to form pretty solid connections with everyone.  I hid my dancing for the longest time which was a mistake because it gives them a glimpse into who I am when I’m not at work and that also helps with the connection.

The other obvious truth I’ve learned is that everyone has a life outside of work and that life doesn’t stop when people walk through the door to start their work day.  Sometimes, that requires people to share things with me that they’d really rather not but it becomes necessary when the needs of their personal life start to intrude on their work life.  Going back to my mantra of not being an A-Hole, I realize I can’t really help solve people’s problems at home but I can make their work life less stressful and at least allow them to deal better with things that are happening at home.

But it means I’ve had some pretty intense and emotional conversations with people who are going through life altering events.  I learned a long time ago to keep well stocked with Kleenex because some of these people are criers.  I’ve had two conversations this week with people who are in a difficult patch in their life and needing some flexibility to work things out.  I know it is difficult for people to discuss intimately personal details of their life with someone who really isn’t a family member or close friend and I’m not the best at dealing with strong emotions so mostly I just listen and try to empathize.

There’s a cost associated with all of this.  As an introvert, I have a limited amount of energy that can be devoted to things like this and I do feel a great deal of empathy for folks who are going through tough times.  I wish I had a magic wand to make things go away but I don’t which makes you feel helpless when all you can do is listen and offer comments that you hope are helpful.  Since both of those conversations happened today, I’m pretty much wiped which is why I’m choosing to stay home an write rather than go to group class because I’m just not ready to deal with people right now.  And that’s part of the reason I’m writing this as well.  Dealing with all that just stirs up some stuff and I have to find a way to just let it out.

But I also wonder if this has had an impact on me in some way.  When I first took the Myer’s-Briggs, I came out as an INTP and the T preference was really strong.  For some reason, I was always proud of that.  I think I associated that with intelligence when all it really means is that you like to base your decisions on logic and facts and are more concerned with being fair and not how the decision is going to impact people.  One thing I’ve gotten good at is gaming those tests because I’ve read enough about them to know how to answer certain questions and so I’ve subconsciously steered myself towards keeping with the strong T.  But, I recently took another version of it and decided to think a little more about what describes me and the F preference was suddenly as strong as the T.  When I read the descriptions of the two, I’m still more of an INTP than an INFP but the difference is not as sharp as I’ve long believed.

I can’t help but feel dancing is somehow tied to this but I can’t come up with a coherent way to put it all together.  It somehow touches parts of me that maybe I didn’t want to believe existed.  And, once released, they don’t easily go back.  And maybe that has carried over since it has helped me establish some real connections with the people I work with.  But, since I don’t have a grand theory to end this with,  I’ll just go with a song lyric that seems to sum it up

“I ain’t changed but I know I ain’t the same”.

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