Originally published on LinkedIN.
I have felt for much of the past decade that the difference between your career advancing is empathy. Or rather – a lack of it.
I am a firm believer that a lack of Empathy will ultimately inflict upon us a bitter resentment for the same people we were meant to help if we let it. And it gets in the way of our advancement in our own career paths. Now let’s be honest. This did not come by choice. I have to work at it daily to remind myself to be nice. It comes with a certain added level of stress and anxiety I battle regularly. Over the past 18 years working, I know I’m not alone in this.
“Hi, my name is Todd and I am a grumpy old man trapped in a younger but aging body.”
As polite as I maybe, anyone who has worked with me in the first decade of my career has had a front row seat to my professional, but equally socially bipolar personality towards others. When I first started to deal face-to-face with clients, I could smile and listen to a client to not be rude, but ultimately, I would reserve a painful weight of aggression and misplaced anger towards their opinions as soon as I left the room. It was a poison that nearly consumed me well into my early thirties. What was worse is that it was often encouraged by those around me. A twisted sense of cultural bonding that is expected to make us feel like we fought in the trenches together and one that can have a lasting negative effect on younger talent. It sets in stone a damaging knee-jerk reaction to others outside the “circle”.
When I see this in others I completely get where it comes from. The idea that we lose so much of our work to changing strategies, feedback, public critique, design by committee and a hundred other hurdles. It makes sense that we begin to feel the only way to survive is to grow sharper teeth from the start. The more the world begins to focus on collaboration, remote teamwork environments, automated solutions and outside opinions to guide what used to be hidden behind a curtain of “the creative department” a self-constructed defense mechanism grows to kills many of us.
That barrier to many of us moving beyond an intermediate position in their career to something more senior is not always your skill set or even proven experience. Your attitude and your ability to collaborate is just as crucial. Your empathy to people not inanimate products or documented services. I’ve found the cure for this attitude shift is actually MORE face time, not less and certainly not talking down to your staff or telling them they are wrong. Instead give them the chance to see who is really talking to them and what their motivations are. More time to know clients and their staff and their customers and develop actual feelings for them. Sorry for all who spend time on writing the world’s best brief or strategy, but connecting with a client on a personal level is more conductive to stronger work. We work better as humans when we care about what we do and who we do it for.
Why is empathy so important for your career advancement then? First, because outside of your internal department workings the true area of career growth for almost every industry is expanding into other departments, industries and groups. In the end, it is those people that will help you excel – so having a sense of real care into their opinions, shared success and skills is actually what you should focus your growth and learning from. Secondly, because you can’t really fake it for that long – though some seem to think they can. Having real feelings is actually more important than trying to distance yourself from your work as a way to cushion the blow of potential failure or critique. Go ahead and get angry…then pause take it back and think on it a while.
It took me a long time to come to grips with that realization. And even longer to start to curb the feeling for rebelling simply for the sake of rebelling.
For me it started with a conversation with someone else in discussion of how to get past a client I was having trouble feeling any sense of care for. I just couldn’t find myself liking or respecting them. Then it was suggested “Don’t do it for them, do it for their staff who get to feed their family if the work is successful”.
That is a heavy thing to hear. Ultimately it was the turning point in my perception of working for others as a creative person.
Now, I force myself to reset with a few basic reminders:
- BE A GOOD LISTENER: Don’t ignore anyone’s opinion, including your own. But Never forget – they are still just opinions. I was once told I good listener. I used to think that was because I am quiet by nature. Now I know I actually need to listen to feel something and give myself real-time to compose my thoughts and opinions on things.
- THINK IT OVER: Before you say no, say ‘Let us take it back and look at it’. I learnt this early on with client interactions because i had a tendency to take things wrong or at face value with feedback.
- WORK IT OUT: If you can solve it with them, they are more likely to own it and equally fight for it. I learnt this through getting to know clients as people and seeing their passion push mine further.
- SUCCEED TOGETHER: Helping someone succeed is what makes you succeed. It’s not the other way around. Because patting yourself on the back is icky.
- CARE ABOUT THEM, NOT IT: Think about the client and their staff who get to feed their family if the work is successful. This was suggested to me almost 10 years ago, I still think about it almost daily when interacting with people and situations.
This is just my personal list of things I check myself against. What is more valuable is to pause, think on your own list and remember it.