I cry at the movies, I find visits to the pet store wrenching, and interpersonal conflict makes me uncomfortable, even when I’m just a bystander.
My name is Matt, and I’m an empathetic CEO.
By nature, CEOs are supposed to be tough, direct, and painfully honest. I’m imperfect, but I tend to believe that the most successful people can check their most empathetic feelings in order to focus primarily on results—kittens and conflict be damned.
Unfortunately, the modern workplace isn't exactly a model of productive conflict. Instead, we have a problem with being too nice at work. Conflict aversion and passive aggression are far more familiar to most people than transparency, directness, and painful honesty.
That presents a serious business with a big problem: To drive results, we need to get comfortable with making one another a little more uncomfortable.
Of course, that doesn't mean being hostile, rude, or needlessly confrontational. But not only is it possible to have respectful disagreements, it's important to know how to cultivate them.
Over the past five years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates using a pretty consistent formula. First, I ask them to describe a specific colleague they’ve enjoyed working with. Most can do that just fine. I then ask about a colleague they’ve disliked. Routinely, people describe their most effective colleagues as "direct." And in a vain attempt to avoid saying bad things about others, candidates describe their disagreeable colleagues merely as "nice."
We value coworkers who provide clarity—those who are willing to say what they believe, even when that poses a challenge to someone else's views. They're more effective because they can put their empathetic impulses to the side when they need to.
And then there's "nice." What a horrible, flimsy word! It's invariably a backhanded compliment. Candidates I interview initially focus on these folks' pleasant and deferential characters. But when challenged, they go on to describe those same people as passive aggressive, conflict averse, and ineffective. That’s not so "nice" after all.
Effective people—and leaders in particular—share the truth, even when they know it won't be well-received. Empathy isn't just a natural human emotion. It's something we're taught as very young children to hone and pay attention to: "Share your toys." "Say thank you." "How do you think that made her feel?"
That's generally a very good thing for people living together in a society. But as adults in business settings, our empathy can grab hold of the wheel at the wrong time, steering us astray. Instead of helping us find practical resolutions to obstacles we're facing down together, it can promote conflict aversion just when productive conflict is what’s needed most.
Here are three refrains I tend to hear when I ask job candidates to described a well-liked colleague:
"He let people off the hook, including me." When a colleague works with undeniable dedication but still fails to deliver satisfactory results, empathy tells us to give them a break. But people notice whether others are held accountable to delivering what’s expected while somebody else gets a free pass. Consistently upholding performance standards is important, no matter how it feels.
"She didn’t give me good feedback." Face-to-face feedback is tough to deliver directly and truthfully. Empathy tells you to soften the blow and make it easier. The biggest error that leads us to? "Shit sandwiches," which start with something nice, touch on the real issue, then follow with more sweet nothings. Alas, the direct, unsavory truth gets lost between the bread.
"He didn’t speak up." Empathy isn’t just a one-on-one phenomenon; we also experience it in groups. So when your team is celebrating a result that isn’t quite adequate, it can be hard to be the downer. But when the truth surfaces, colleagues know that those who were aware of the issue failed to raise their voices. It's only when it's too late that everyone wishes they had.
Communicating directly and engaging in productive conflict, while difficult, simply makes for better performance—at both the individual level and the business one. Nobody wants a reputation for being confrontational or inconsiderate, but neither do they want to be known merely as "nice."
Shifting your behavior from "pleasant" to "assertive" without making yourself positively hated can be done, but it takes practice. Here's how to get in the habit.
1. Know what you want. There’s a reason you’re deciding to prioritize a result over others' feelings. Be clear first with yourself about the result you’re trying to achieve, so you can be clear with the other party. You can usually acknowledge that emotional toll without utterly dismissing it: "I know this might not feel great to hear, but the important thing is that we get this right."
2. Acknowledge your anxiety. When we anticipate others' discomfort, we feel a natural but unproductive sense of anxiety. The Golden Rule comes in handy here: You would want to hear the truth rather than be condescended to, and so would the person you're speaking with.
3. Start by stating what you believe. One solution to anxiety is having a plan. Write down what you’d like to say in the most straightforward way possible, then use those words to begin the conversation. That can help you cut out some of the overly empathetic phrases that might cloud your message. Don’t give your emotions the chance to take over before you’ve delivered it.
In business, success comes from a relentless drive for results. And that, of course, takes people skills—including well-placed empathy. But communicating with authenticity, purpose, and transparency is a part of that skill set, too, and it earns you the respect of those around you, however uncomfortable it might make them once in a while.
It isn't a zero-sum game. Effective communicators don't lack empathy altogether; on the contrary, they work with others respectfully in order to get things done.
So this year, help treat the modern empathy epidemic by choosing to prioritize results over harmony. Acknowledge and embrace your empathetic emotions, but make honesty your primary mission. After all, the very people your empathy engine is trying to protect are the ones who will thank you, not for being nice, but for helping them be the best colleagues they can be.