Where Can We Find Empathy

As I have traveled down the rabbit hole of empathy in the workplace, there is a common theme: healthcare. Rightfully, so the first place that empathy researchers are focusing is in hospitals and doctors’ offices. It makes perfect sense that healthcare workers should be a group of people who have empathy for others. There are some who do it much better than others.

I recently read a book about Appalachia coal mining called Soul Full of Coal Dust. The book is a deep dive into the trials and tribulations of miners trying to get black lung support. The coal companies would hire expensive attorneys who would then hire expensive doctors to refute black lung claims. One such doctor actually never diagnosed black lung in all the cases he reviewed. When interviewed he was steadfast that miners were trying to take advantage of the system. The system in which would give miners around $750 to $1000 a month. Even when shown the governmental standard slides for diagnosing black lung, he argued it was not.

In my opinion, this was a doctor who went to medical school for prestige and profit. This was not someone who had a great deal of empathy or even basic care for other humans. If there was a profession that I think should have the greatest amount of empathy it would be those that directly impact the life and death of others. So, it makes sense that researchers first focused on these professions when looking for empathy in the workplace.

The research is interesting as it hints that empathy is needed but may not be something that can be fully learned and accepted by all people. Instead, there are suggestions for how to standardize patient contact to create a feeling of empathy. There were ideas for frequency and duration of contact, methods of questions to bring out the needs of the patient, and methods for attentive patient care. In a broad sense, it was not learning empathy but learning how to engage with people on a human level. I found this interesting because in the business world, empathy is not nearly as valued as in the medical field. Maybe there are some ways that we can use this knowledge to help create better leaders.

You can’t fix stupid

Have you ever heard a supervisor or manager tell you that about a hurt employee? Hopefully, you are aware they are telling the truth. When it comes to emotional intelligence you just can’t fix stupid, just like that supervisor has shown. They are emotionally ignorant. They have made a conscious choice to blame a worker for a problem they know exists and choose to not fix. That is a complete lack of empathy.

The word empathy usually invokes the thoughts of professionals and people who demonstrate an outward appearance of care and compassion. I think of doctors, psychologists, volunteers, clergy, teachers, etc. The truth is to be an effective leader EQ is as important as IQ if not slightly more important. In a leadership position, it is not about how much you know but how much you can help empower and equip others to accomplish a common goal.

Earlier in my career, I met a supervisor that told me as part of an accident investigation. “You can’t fix stupid.” I wish at the time that I had the insight that I do now. Honestly, though, I probably handled it better back then than I would now. At that time, I focused on the items that were in the supervisor’s control. I asked questions about maintenance work orders. I walked around with him and pointed out areas that needed repair. Certainly, he walked with me begrudgingly. I was not beyond the idea of taking him by the hand or sliding my arm around his elbow and gently escorting him. I think he knew that and chose to voluntarily walk rather than be led.

I was not going to change his mind about people. I was able to show that he would be accountable to his area and to assure that items were repaired and that he followed our policies. He was as emotionally adept as he was ever going to be. He was happy in his state of lack of empathy. As you can imagine, he was not an effective leader. He ran average shifts. He did not innovate. He did not inspire any level of greatness in his team. As the organization evolved, he chose not to. Thus, he was ultimately left behind and felt it.

In Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence, he states, “(those) who know and manage their own feelings well, and who read and deal effectively with other people’s feelings—are at an advantage in any domain of life.” Building empathy for those around you and in essence in the workplace creates a means of better understanding the most complex and most important part of any organization, its people. So when it comes to stupid, it’s probably best not to announce one’s faults and inability to fix them.

Celebrating DEI

Today was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I spent some time reflecting on the changes I have seen in the workplace in my 20 years of HSE and HR experience. I am honestly excited about what I have seen and learned. Certainly in the space of diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is much more that can be done. Honestly, work in that area of organizations should never stop. I am, though, pleased with many of the improvements I have seen.

First, I am fortunate to have worked in organizations and with leaders who took DEI seriously. They knew that having different perspectives, thoughts, and backgrounds improved the agility and landscape of the location. I remember hearing once, “diversity is what comes in the door and inclusion is what we do with it.” Basically, they were saying that we can recruit for diversity, but that was not enough. We had to ensure that the voices were heard and accounted for.

When I first entered the world of HSE, personal protective equipment was built for a one-size-fits-all workplace. I am happy to see more and more PPE providers looking for ways to create a better fit for all workers. Again, it is not perfect, and there is a long way to go. It is positive to see that there has been a change. The fact that the manufacturers are thinking about a diverse workplace is encouraging.

I have seen the difference in an organization that prioritizes and values DEI. I am glad that there are more and more discussions at local and national levels on how to improve and accelerate DEI initiatives. On the day when we remember Dr. King, I openly admit that there is much that organizations and individuals can do (obviously myself included), and I am also optimistic that the current and future generations will keep improving.

Empathy is fundamental to leadership

I am convinced more and more that the root of great leadership is empathy. When you think of the qualities that define a good leader such as trust, communication, or caring, they all begin with someone who has empathy toward others. If someone has a core built on empathy, the rest of the skills of a leader are easily learned. Empathy in the workplace has become a recent passion and how someone with the natural ability to care for others can lead people and especially lead people safely. I have been doing some research into empathy, especially in the workplace.

Unfortunately, A theme that is apparent is that it is exceptionally difficult to teach empathy in the workplace. The first reason is that when someone is most able to learn empathy, they may not have been taught. It is early in a child’s development that empathy should be demonstrated. There is also evidence that empathy may be hard coded in our DNA. It could very well be a nature vs nurture argument. In reality, it is somewhere in between.

Once someone has found some success in a working profession they begin to harden toward change. Especially change in the emotional processes or feeling part of their work ego. These people are generally highly successful but lack any notion of how to respect other people. They are singly focused on their individual contribution. But due to that individual success, they are heralded as leaders. Individual success is not leadership

It is in the hands of the organization to find those that are good leaders and not just highly successful people. It is up to the company to evaluate and assure that those who are not fit for leadership are not allowed to affect the well-being of others with whom they have no empathy. It is a sad and disturbing place to be in where your supervisor, manager, and organization are so lacking in empathy that they ignore the basic needs of their people. They forget about safety. They forget about communication. They demand trust when it has never been earned. All because of a fundamental lack of empathy.

All is not lost, though. Even though empathy is one of the hardest skills to teach and enact in an organization some steps can be taken. Like most actions as an adult, it begins with knowing that there is an opportunity for improvement.

A More Organized 2023

Welcome to 2023!

I joked that my New Year’s Eve party included creating a custom digital GoodNotes planner for 2023. It was a wild party at my house. I was up late. There was some wine. It was after midnight before I was done with my project. I then wished the family a happy 2023 and went to bed. 

The next day, my wife said that I could share those documents as part of my leadership consulting business. At first, I thought that was pretty silly, as who would want some stuff that I created? On second thought, it seemed like a worthwhile idea. I have been designing digital planners for myself since 2016-ish. This current version had remained mostly unchanged for the last 3 or so years. So, it has been well tested.

I have tried many of the iOS notes taking apps that are available. I was a Noteabilty guy for some time then discovered GoodNotes 5. I do not think there is a perfect note-taking app, but GoodNotes has served me best. I like the stickers, element creation, backup structure, and how well PDF document import as note-taking pages. 

As we enter 2023 together, I am excited to share my journey templates. The first sheet is a full-year calendar in which dates can be highlighted. To the side, I dd brief notes to explain the highlights. For example, I may highlight January 10-11 in orange. Then to the side of the week write in orange “BOS” for traveling to Boston. 

I love this one-page look at the whole year. I use stickers to indicate birthdates, anniversaries, medical, and dental appointments. It is nice to see my whole year at a glance. When I am syncing up with others, I can look at that page and see my appointments and travel. 

The other page included is for those frequent travelers. I am on the road for 3-4 weeks every month. I can quickly lose track of what I have booked and make sure I have the timing right to get where I need to go. This sheet has worked great as it gives me a one-month view of my travel. I know where I am going, how I will get there, and that I booked everything I need. 

Finally, I like Cornell notes for my bullet journal. Check out this article on Cornell notes https://bit.ly/3jKOACT

Enjoy! I hope your 2023 is well organized and efficient 🙂

Why HR?

I have had a few people ask about my transition from safety to human resources. Why make that kind of move? What interested me in HR? They are kind of the same but still very different. This is something I have been really thinking about recently. 

First, you should know that I am an inherent problem solver. I also live inside my head . . . a lot. So between the internal dialog and the need to keep reflecting and solving, this idea of “why HR” continues to stick with me. It was only recently that in the middle of a conversation with a friend and colleague that I found my answer. 

Even early on in my career in safety, I knew there was something fundamental about the work. It seemed that even though there were laws to tell me what I should be implementing and maintaining, the right to a safe place to work should be a human right. There are bigger organizational components to a robust and functional safety program. There are critical aspects of a company that if not in place will adversely affect a safety program regards of how competent, dedicated, hard-working, or credentialed the safety person is.

Safety is either accelerated or hindered by:

  • Communication
  • Ethics
  • Funding
  • Leadership
  • Training
  • Medical Benefits
  • Employee Assistance Programs
  • Corporate Values
  • Empowerment

Other than the CEO, which branch of an organization is best suited to guide these principles in a way that enables safety? It would be HR. Many times learning and development, communication, and even safety roll up under the HR organizational structure. It made sense to me at that moment that the reason I accepted my role in HR was to clear that path so that safety could be successful. It is the Maxwell leadership principle of influence.

Through the organizational structure, I would have a chance to change and influence the core building blocks of a strong people-oriented safety program. Only time will tell if I will be successful at what I hope will be a successful experiment in safety systems. What I do know so far is that this is continued proof that safety cannot function alone in an organization. It takes a concentrated organizational effort to provide a safe and healthy workplace. 

Here is my “consolidated theory of safety” 🙂

1) An organization that has the items on the list will have a good safety program.

2) An organization with a good safety program will have [pick an item in the list].


3) Safety is the litmus test for organizational culture.