The Perils of Hyper-Empathizing

By

All of the CEOs I coach are also practitioners of a craft.

Some of them are sales agents or consultants, others designers or engineers, still others researchers. This is true of myself, as well.

They are also founders of their companies.

Most of us founded our company because we wanted to keep doing what we wanted to do. Then came a time when we realized that we could no longer do it alone. We realized that we either needed people to whom we could offload what we were doing or people who could do what we ourselves could not.

What commonly happens in this process is that we get stuck in a pattern of first hyper-empathizing then not empathizing.

For example, what often happens when we hire people to do what we already know how to do? We assume they can do the job just as well as we do.

Now, of course, we intellectually recognize that they are different from us. We may also intellectually recognize that they have less experience than we do. But this does not always stop us from feeling as if they will know what we know or notice and do things the same way we do them.

This is an example of hyper-empathizing.

6 Basic Concepts of Empathy

When we hyper-empathize, despite an intellectual understanding of the difference between two people, we are either unwilling or unable to distinguish ourselves from others at a more visceral level.

When we hyper-empathize with others, only to be proven that they are not like us, we often experience emotional tension. After all, our subconscious expectation has been violated. This may then push us to the other extreme: not empathizing.

We may experience a variety of unpleasant feelings when we make this shift out of tension. At the very least unpleasant, we may feel confused why they are not like us. When more unpleasant, we may feel contempt, thinking to ourselves…

“How incompetent or stupid do they have to be to not know what I know, not notice what I notice, or not do things the way I do them?”

To be clear, I do not wish to judge this good/bad or right/wrong. I simply want to highlight the fact that hyper-empathizing is very common. It happens to all of us. Wives do this when the husband doesn’t put the dish in the dishwasher. Husbands do this when the wife hangs the toilet paper under (or behind) the roll instead of over (or in front of) the roll.

At the same time, this is a slippery slope to micro-management. Micro-management is a source of tremendous stress for both the CEO and their staff. Sustained for the long-term, CEOs will burn out and staff will become passive and disengaged.

Hyper-empathizing also plays a role when the person we hired has skills we ourselves do not, but we still have an opinion on their skills.

And boy, do we have opinions.

For example, we may not be a software engineer ourselves, but we’ve heard that pair programming is an effective way to build software. So we hire a bunch of programmers and demand that they do pair programming. Oh, and to make sure they don’t misunderstand our intentions, we show them proof why pair programming is great. After all, we’re good leaders. We don’t make irrational demands. So we share research findings, success stories from our past lives, or things we’ve heard from our trusted sources of information.

When we do this, we often assume that since we are convinced of the value of something, the others will also be convinced. Now, of course, we intellectually recognize that they are different from us. We may also intellectually recognize that they have more experience than we do in their field of expertise. But this does not always stop us from feeling as if they will think or feel like we do.

To our surprise, we may hear our newly hired engineers express their concern about pair programming. Here, we, once again, experience emotional tension and we are often moved to not empathize. This time, we may feel contempt, thinking to ourselves…

“How closed-minded and fearful do they have to be to not accept data, facts, or science?”

Once again, I do not wish to judge this good/bad or right/wrong. I simply want to highlight that this is very common.

At the same time, if you demand they follow without questioning your authority, the approach can merely give rise to resentment and begrudging commitment. When people are carrying out a change initiative not only without a genuine sense of commitment, but also filled with resentment, chances are good that it will have a negative impact on the potential for the change initiative to succeed.

Moving from hyper-empathizing to not empathizing and getting stuck there is one of the most basic patterns of struggle I see in leadership.

The alternative is simple, but not easy. You have to have greater mastery over realizing your empathy so you can start by empathizing without hyper-empathizing. This can be difficult. At the same time, if you’re willing and motivated, you can learn it through deliberate practice.

Afterwards, you can also engage others in an empathic conversation so that you develop a sense of unity not merely a hierarchy of command. When we carry out a change initiative from a place of unity, there is a far greater chance that the initiative will succeed — despite disagreements. This is not magic. It’s simply because when a united group of committed individuals come across an obstacle, they are more likely to figure out a way to make things work. On the other hand, when a divided group of uncommitted individuals encounter the first sign of an obstacle, they are more likely to either give up or stay stuck blaming the people who gave the order. As the famous saying goes “See? I told you it won’t work.”

Once again, I know this is easier said than done. At the same time, if you’re willing and motivated, you can learn to do this through deliberate practice.

Heres a question you can ask yourself to get started.

“How can I involve others in the decision making process in a way that sufficiently fulfills their need to be heard and understood even if the ultimate decision may not be to their liking?”

May you get unstuck from the pattern of first hyper-empathizing then not empathizing.

 

• • •

 


Photo credit to U.S. Army