Is it a flaw to feel?
Are some personalities better than others? Two summers ago, my colleagues and I were comparing the results and implications of our Lumina Spark personality tests. We were trying to understand how we could work more productively as a team in light of our differences. This test assigns every personality type a colour. Were we a ‘green-yellow’ (inspiration-driven) or a through and through ‘red’ (outcome-focused)? A ‘shy blue’ (down-to-earth and introverted) or an ‘emotional green’ (people-focused)? This first level of description was interesting. Who were the people I was working with? What motivated their ways of working? Why did I find it easier to work with A than I did with B?
However, as we continued discussing our results, something strange and unpleasant began to creep into the conversation. The test told me that I was a dominant green: a people-focused, empathetic person. Listening to my colleagues, I couldn’t help but hear that several of them believed empathy was a weakness. They argued it wasn’t possible to be both empathetic and effective. If you wanted to make important, rational decisions and get things done, empathy just gets in the way. I found this view rather confronting.
Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective and feelings. Empathy is what enables us to understand and share in the human. My ability to step into someone else’s shoes and really appreciate how they feel is something I’ve always loved and valued. Empathy, to me, has always seemed pretty darn important – but now I was being told that it was not going to get anyone anywhere. This genuinely threw me.
However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that their position was based on a set of assumptions I fundamentally rejected. This assumed way to lead is based on the archetypal white man who dominates and imposes authority and power. We have been taught that this is what leadership looks like – rational, decisive, objective - and that this is how we should conduct ourselves professionally, that this is a good way of working.
Empathy, to them, was pulling me back. How could you possibly be both effective and empathetic? I was made to feel as though empathy was weakness. I was feeling. My personality was dominated by a soft skill. I was the weak little feeling woman.
Typically, within this set of assumptions, we are taught to put barriers up to other people’s feelings because this allows us to be ‘objective’. But rather than objective, I think putting up barriers often leads to extractive behaviours, to using people merely as a means to an end? Too often, the people we are working to help do not have their voices heard, bad assumptions are made, and control is removed from them. Within our work, we must put ourselves into other people’s shoes. We must take the time to allow people to articulate their points of view and we must then take the time to understand and process what we have heard. If we fail to listen to others, if we fail to be empathetic and connect with others, then we will fail to create a thriving society.
I don’t believe that these emotional barriers are a strength, nor that allowing emotions in is soft. Being empathetic is often exhausting, overwhelming and hard. Putting up a barrier is easy and safe. Maybe I’m biased as a “green” and proud person, but it seems nonsensical that we can expect our communities to progress in productive ways if we don’t nourish and harness our ability to connect empathetically with others. We need to work effectively together if we want to make real change happen, and surely feeling must be part of that.
To say this isn’t to try and diminish the value of other qualities. Indeed, a diversity of personality types within a team is essential. But rather it is to highlight that many people fall into the archetypal trap of presuming that to consider other people’s feelings in our work lives is to just to pander, to act on a whim, to ignore all logic. Empathy is viewed as something that needs to be suppressed rather than embraced. This must change. We must work hard to appreciate the efforts of those who use their empathy for the betterment of others and we must not be shamed into boxing away our ability to do so. To feel is not a flaw. It is what allows us to embrace and make sense of lived experience. It is what allows us to make our work meaningful to others. It is what allows us to connect with one another. Without empathy, we’ll all be pretty hard pressed to achieve this. In fact without empathy, we’d all be somewhat broken.