In our maiden “Work in Progress” podcast, John Zissimos, Google’s vice president, said that the most important advance in his evolution as a leader was realizing the importance of empathy. While I agree that it’s a cornerstone trait for anyone wanting to be considered a good human being, what makes you a good person can make you a terrible boss.
Empathy means being attuned to another’s pain or well-being. It’s something you want in a friend, a significant other and an emergency medical technician — but in a managerial context, it can lead to a happy and adoring staff, which is not as wonderful as it sounds. I don’t know about you, but I do my best work when I have an edge, I have something to prove, or I’m simply pissed off. When I sit down to write these columns, it’s usually to get something off my chest. When I play tennis, I go from intensity to rage to anxiety, and occasionally to panic and self-pity when my forehand is misfiring. I’m happy when I’ve completed a column and feel it turned out well or beat my opponent senseless and left him wondering why he ever got out of bed that morning. Happiness is a fine goal, but it’s not a very productive operating system.
I was reading an interesting book by an evolutionary psychologist who made the point that we’re not wired to be happy. All it takes is an unguarded moment of bliss and you’re someone’s meal — not good if you’re looking to procreate or keep yourself on the payroll into next month. If I’m a CEO or manager, and I want employees who are driven to excel, do I really want them happy and content?
Now, I’m not advocating the “Glengarry Glen Ross” approach: “You see this watch? You see this watch? That watch cost more than your car. I made $970,000 last year. How much you make? You see, pal, that’s who I am. And you’re nothing. Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? F@#$ you, go home and play with your kids. You wanna work here? Close.”
I’d sooner work on an assembly line performing colonoscopies all day long than work for that guy, but surely there’s a middle ground between that and a blissed out environment where everyone shows up and leaves happy, with nothing much to show but the musty residue of warm feelings.
A top sales consultant I knew shared several motivational tricks he used, allegedly to great effect, with his sales team. On a coffee table in his office, he spread the latest magazines catering to luxe lifestyles rife with eye-popping, near pornographic pictures of expensive baubles and boats, lakeside mansions and seaside resorts, with an assortment of exotic accoutrements out of the James Bond playbook. The idea was to make sure their appetites always outpaced their earnings, but just by a little. They worked hard for their bonus check and were delighted when it came, but feelings of happiness fled the moment the next object of desire beckoned from those glossy pages.
Empathy is a fine and admirable thing, as the lack of it is what defines a sociopath. And unless you are a sociopath, few would argue that sociopathic bosses get you to do your best work. That said, there is something to Orson Welles’ famous speech in the classic film "The Third Man":
“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace — and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
As Lucrezia Borgia would have said had reality TV arrived 500 years earlier, “I’m not here to make friends, I’m here to win.”