How sympathizing with our team members causes harm

It had been a long day capped off by a late flight.

The crowded plane was finally on the ground and the passengers were starting to depart.

Cy Wakeman recalls in her book all she could think about was getting to her rental car so she could drive to her hotel and get a good night’s sleep.

The guy in front of her was not helping the situation.  He was texting.  He would walk a few steps, stop, and meander left to right.

There was construction in the airport so Cy was unable to walk past him.   

She could feel her blood beginning to boil.

“My usual breathing techniques weren’t keeping me calm, and it was all I could do not to push him out of the way,” she recalls.  

“But just as I had that thought, he stumbled and fell off the curb at the airport,” she writes.

In a flash, Cy’s irritation changed to concern.  

She had a choice to make.  Option one: ignore him and move on.  That didn’t feel right.

Option two: choose to be sympathetic.  She might say, “Oh, you poor thing. It’s crazy that airport officials don’t make it easier for us to walk and text!  We should demand uneven surfaces be eliminated throughout the airport!  How is anyone supposed to walk and text in these ridiculous conditions?!”

Option three: Stop with sympathy and lead with empathy.  

“I’m so glad you are okay,” Cy said to the man as she helped him up.  “I was observing your current texting process ended up in a really painful situation.  My daughter insisted I start using voice text and it’s worked really well for me so far.”

Empathy acknowledges suffering but doesn’t require collusion.  Empathy separates the suffering from reality.  Empathy often includes a call to greatness.

Too many leaders use sympathy to connect with team members.  But feeling sorry for someone doesn’t help them.  Colluding with them and agreeing we are at the mercy of circumstance reinforces a victim mindset.

Read more about empathy in some of my past RWD blogs Three types of empathy? and Why connection surpasses response

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Reflection: What’s my go-to response, sympathy or empathy, when someone is suffering?

Action:  Look for an opportunity today to practice empathy.

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