Empathy vs Altruism in Modern Leadership

The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.

But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls [1]. Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.

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Fostering Collaboration Across Cultures

Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.

Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.

Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.

Illustration: Design vs Development

As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.

A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:

  • untidy
  • unencumbered by deadlines
  • value form over function
  • generally “right-brained”

A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:

  • fastidious
  • unencumbered by manners
  • value function over form
  • generally “left-brained”

Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.

These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.

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Building a Culture of Safety

When I think back over the many communities I’ve been part of over the years — whether at work, as a volunteer, or in a church — those that were most vibrant had many things in common. They had leadership that was engaging, they had regular gatherings, and they were clear about who they served. As I’ve grown into my own concepts of leadership, I have come to recognize that one of the largest (and most hidden) things they had in common was a dedication to cultural safety. Letting people come as they are, and honoring that, was foundational to how they operated.

Safety can mean different things to different people, though, so here’s a quick overview of how I see it.

Types of Safety

  • Physical Safety – The ability to remain free from bodily harm. For my current work in the WordPress project, this mostly comes up in relation to in-person events.
  • Psychological Safety – The ability to express yourself freely. This comes up in all of the community’s communication channels, from Slack and team blogs to twitter and events.
  • Social Safety – The ability be your whole self among others. This, naturally, comes up in all of our spaces both in-person and on-line.
  • Moral Safety – The ability to reconcile your work with your morals. This comes up mostly with volunteers in WordPress.

Though I’m sure this isn’t a comprehensive list, I do feel that these four kinds of safety line right up with some basic needs of healthy modern communities: personal safety, open communication, inclusivity, and aligned values.

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The Panel Predicament

For anyone who has worked with me organizing content-driven events, you will have heard me say regularly how much I hate panels. I am quick to declare my dislike of them, but generally only in the safety of a group of organizers. I’ll try to provide some clarity in the need for panels, why I dislike most panels I see, and what we can change to make them better.

The Value of Panels

In theory, I understand the appeal of panels. There is a lot of information available in the world, and it’s increasingly difficult to assess how trustworthy to consider the opinion of any self-proclaimed expert. There are many ways to achieve expert level opinions: by education, by research, by practice. Probably other ways, too. To solve the problem, we host panels. We gather industry thought leaders or experts and have them discuss things openly, in the accountability-forging context of “filming in front of a live audience”. We then leave it up to the audience to decide — what is your version of this truth that we’ve presented to you, almost without editorial aid?

The Failing of Panels

In practice, panels are far from that. They are either overpowered by a single voice or are overpowered by apparent fighting among the panelists. Moderators double as panelists and leave the group with no discernible direction. Panelists answer in a round robin style, often leaving no time for interesting or informed viewpoints to shine through. Panels are overstaffed and used as a way to prevent the discomfort of having to turn down speakers. Most people don’t apply to be on a panel, and many who get assigned to participate on a panel think that it means no preparation is required.

The Best Panels

It’s not that we’ve never seen a good panel. We see them from time to time, on TV or at large-scale niche events. There is a lot of writing available about how to be a better speaker, but not a lot about how to be a better panelist. Or even how to craft an excellent panel as an organizer. So I’ll tell you what’s proven to work for me over the years, as a long-time event organizer.

Crafting an Excellent Panel

In my experience, the best panels require a thoughtful moderator and panelists with a decent level of rapport (but not best friends). It’s great if you already have a group that fits that description. If you don’t there is a short, simple process that you can follow to foster one from the expert panel you have assembled.
  1. Dedicated Moderator – Find your moderator first, because you’ll need them throughout this process. The best moderators keep the discussion moving by helping with time management, directing questions toward particular panelists, and resisting the urge to join the discussion.
  2. Limited Number – If the time allowed for your panel is one hour, you should select no more than three panelists not including the moderator. That gives each speaker about 15-20 accumulated minutes assuming everything else is perfect.
  3. Prepare Panelists – Your moderator and panelists should have two meetings. Each meeting should take about an hour and be via voice (or a video call if you feel fancy). In the first one, do some general introductions and learn about everyone’s expertise as it relates to your broad topic. The moderator should take notes* and the panelists should explore what they are all excited about so that a topic can be defined.
  4. Clarify Your Topic – After the first meeting, the moderator will know what the most interesting areas of expertise each panelist has. That will help them guide questions (whether prepared or from the audience) to the right people. It will also help create a panel title that is clear, concise, and marketable.
  5. Written Questions – In the second meeting, the moderator should have some questions that have already generated interesting discussions among the panelists. Ask the panelists if, since their last meeting, they’ve been wondering about something another panelist said. Write down 5-10 questions and be prepared to start the panel on the day with 2-3 of them.

Rinse and Repeat

That’s it! Five steps and most of them are talking. 🙂 The first time through it will feel strange and uncomfortable, but after that it’s like riding a bike. *A note on notes. If you’re the moderator the notes you’re taking are:
  • who has a tendency to talk the most
  • who needs encouragement to talk
  • what panelists do 
  • what panelists wish they could do
  • why they do what they do (their philosophies)
  • why their future vision is what it is (their observations)
  • etc

From LiveJournal to WordPress

It’s been over three years since my grandmother passed away. She was a brilliant woman and a prolific writer. When I first started my daily blogging (in 2009) she and my mother were two of the first and most regular readers. That daily blog is all on this blog, though clearly much less frequent than daily.

Last week my sister and I were in search of one of my grandmother’s recipes. I was certain I had it in my old emails, so I went in search of everything my grandmother once sent me.

In addition to comment notifications and a few threads about literary executorship, there was one lone email she sent me from her blog on LiveJournal that she thought I would enjoy. I don’t know if I appreciated the post as much then as I do now (so many years have gone by and I surely have changed since then), but it did lead me to her old blog.

It’s been placed in memoriam status, but it seems like one of those things I should move into a platform I trust. I will start the process of moving her writing into WordPress and everything that goes with that soon, so here’s to a new digital adventure on the horizon!

The Struggles of a Midwest Spring-Summer

In my area, we don’t really get a clear spring season. There is about a week between what your body knows as “impossibly cold” and “impossibly hot” that sometimes has pleasantly cool, yet somehow sunny days.

The thing that confirms that Spring actually is trying to happen are the very windy days. Windy as in Wizard of Oz, sweep away your house, constantly blow your skirt over your head windy. Spring-Summer (my affectionate term for our “spring”) is also confirmed by temperatures that go from a cool 68F in the morning to a blazing 91F by midday.

But don’t let my natural Sauce Pot tone of vocie fool you. I really love this weather. Here are a few of my favorite parts:

  • The birds that return to sharing their morning songs
  • Grilled pineapple and salmon skewers
  • Sparkling water with a key lime squeezed into it
  • Dogs that sit in the pooling sunlight and turn their noses to the interesting winds
  • The smell of sunscreen
  • Walking through the local rose gardens (and the orchid house)
  • Green wine on restaurant patios — bonus for having some friends along

Excuses abound for gathering people in Spring-Summer, too.

  • Concerts
  • Beer fests
  • BBQ fests
  • Bacon fests
  • Hanging Out in My Friend’s Backyard fests*

So welcome, Spring-Summer, and please don’t rain down tornados and torrential rain this year.

~ Much love, Josepha

* That is made up, technically, but you also know just what I mean.

Enclothed Cognition

I work in a company that is fully remote, and one of the things most commonly touted as a perk is the ability to work in an environment of your own choosing. You can work from the sofa or from a desk. You can work with music playing or in complete silence. You can work surrounded by people or you can work 8 hours solo.

But one of the things that comes up most often as a perk, is freedom to dress as you choose. Being free from the judgmental eyes of your differently-dressed colleagues, and therefore free to dress however you choose, can be a liberating prospect.

I tried briefly to dress casually but, having mostly worked in corporate spaces before, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I wasn’t really preparing myself for work.

Turns out, this wasn’t in my mind. It’s independently observable enough, that it even has a name: enclothed cognition.

As a bonus, the very act of getting ready every day adds to your daily routine which has proven benefits for your mental health, productivity, and probably lots more. 🙂