Empathy is like the weather; everyone complains but nobody does anything about it

Ok, maybe I’m trying to be too clever with my headline because you actually can do something about empathy. Let’s discuss.

It seems like every time open my email, check Twitter, or LinkedIn, someone is complaining that leaders and organizations lack empathy. It’s a fair complaint, but the reality is so much more complicated and nuanced than anyone can fit into 140 characters (or even 280). Worse, few of these posts offer any advice beyond “be more empathic.”

I don’t have the answer either, but I do want to suggest one possible reason why it’s easy to overlook empathy as a tech lead and how to fix it. Daniel Goleman, writer of hugely influential books including Emotional Intelligence, tells us humans are hard wired for empathy. It’s what’s made us so much more successful than the chimps or the bonobos.

If empathy is hard wired in our biology, then why as tech leads do we have so much trouble slowing down to feel empathy for others in the organization or (even worse) people on our own team?

As Goleman explains below, the empathy wiring in our brains actually gets disrupted when we’re rushed and focused primarily on our own needs. If you’re like most people (including me), you’re spending most of your time hurried, thinking about yourself, and disrupting your ability to be empathic.

One of the surprising things about moving into leadership roles is how much others start focus on you as an individual instead of your team’s work product (the code). That new focus on you causes some to be arrogant and others to be self conscious; either way, it’s easy to forget about the team.

So it’s not just about doing what mom taught you, resisting arrogance, or being selfless, it’s about the hard science of giving your brain the neurology it needs to actually be successful as a lead: empathy.

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