Walking down stream in Zion National Park

Sometimes, when we talk about empathy, we hear:  “empathizing is fine and dandy with good-hearted people, but what about the people who are really evil?  What should we do with them?”

Important question.  To answer it, I want to share a story – parable really – from my college chemistry professor, the late, great Dr. Seyhan Ege.

A scientist and a doctor were walking at the edge of a stream. Suddenly a couple of people jumped in and started thrashing about.  They were drowning.  The doc immediately threw off his coat, rushed in and carried them to safety. 

The scientist watched. 

Then, more people jumped in.  The doc again jumped in after them and managed to save some, but there were too many.  Others were drowning.  The doc hollered to the scientist, “why don’t you help?!” 

The scientist said, “I am.  I’m trying to figure out why the people are jumping into the stream in the first place.”

You could say she was a little partial to scientists…with no disrespect intended for the docs….

What does this have to do with “evil” people?  A lot, if we believe that:

1)      “evil” is the absence of good

2)      “good” starts with empathy and humanity, and…

3)      Environments can sap us of both, in how we really feel or even just how we show up to the world

Sure there are truly evil people – people so far gone, that there is no recovering their humanity.  Were they evil infants?  I don’t know, but I doubt it.  The only answer in dealing with these people as adults is to disconnect with/avoid them if you can, or fight them HARD to protect yourself or others from emotional, spiritual, or physical damage.  These truly evil people, incapable of rehabilitation, are few.

What is far more widespread and pernicious, is situational evil – people who take the oxygen out of the room because they have been conditioned that it is okay, or even part of the job.  These are the bullies, the Queen Bees, the narcissistic sales guys, the lawyers who have to win every time, the demeaning bosses, the degrading professors, the smarter than thou technologist/scientist/finance lady/strategist, the arrogant surgeon, the coworkers who gossip and spread rumors, the friend at work who steps on you on the way to the top, the people who kiss up and kick down, and the CEOs who accept/demand wildly more compensation than anyone else.  We have to take on these people too, with all of the agency – capabilities – we can muster.  Organizations should screen them out and deal with them swiftly.  Professor Robert Sutton wrote a great book about it, aptly titled The No Assholes Rule.

This is important because too many people are dealing with assholes on a daily basis, or even unwittingly acting like one.  As an executive coach I deal with 2 seemingly contradictory truths:  assholes do damage, and they usually don’t mean to show up that way.  I know this because when I see clients for who they are, in a kind and generative way – a non judgmental way that helps them grow as human beings – they are moved.  Sometimes they cry, and not just the women.

There are walking wounded everywhere, because our environments are toxic and/or because we are acting in ways that rub us wrong, on the inside, even when we don’t recognize it.  We are doing the job at hand the best we can, but our strengths and weaknesses are two sides of the same coin.  We are all just grown up children – super capable for a variety of reasons – many of which include needed to learn how to be sometime, somewhere, perhaps when we were very young.  We often forget to be human in their quest to be so efficient and capable. Many of us have avoided at all costs being vulnerable and connected – truly connected – to other people.  It is indeed lonely at the top.

So, what’s even more important than fighting “assholes” one by one is figuring out and changing the systems that exploit and reward this behavior.

Back to Professor Ege’s parable…we need to teach people to swim and/or divert the stream in a way that makes it more like a refreshing walk through paradise.

The New Way to Work is a strategic answer, like that.

I guess I’m still a scientist at heart.

Picture:  The Narrows in Zion National Park

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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