Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Cost of Low Empathy

Research has shown that engineers, on average, have lower empathy than those working in a wide range of other disciplines. Unfortunately, low empathy can lead to poor relationships in the workplace which in turn, lead to less predictability of both behavior and emotions. Such uncertainty then leads to withdrawal and a lack of care which ultimately reduces the creativity and synergy of working engineers. 

The following story explores how a relatively few dispassionate, disconnected, low-empathy remarks and behaviors at work can cause a whole lot of pain when delivered at the wrong time and wrong place in an individual's life -- leading to long term loss of trust in coworkers and managers and withdrawal from the workplace.  

I'll never forget that day in October when I was pulling into my driveway after a very long day at work and the phone rang. The last thing I wanted to do was answer it, but it was the same unknown number that I had received a call from (and not answered) earlier in the day. I answered the phone, discovered I was talking to one of my mother's neighbors, and listened speechless as the kind neighbor recounted my mother's visit to the emergency room the day before. A tumor had exploded in her abdomen, causing such pain that it finally overcame my mother's stubborn resistance to doctors of all sorts and landed her in the ER with a doctor who was nothing short of callous in delivering her late stage cancer diagnosis. 

Fast forward to several months later.  I worked as an engineer in a high-stress high-tech job that demanded much of my time and energy and had little space for a personal life.  Working among engineers, I had also learned to hide my more intense emotions whenever possible. Unfortunately, since my mother's diagnosis, intense emotions were more the rule than the exception and I had spent much time strategically turning my head away or excusing myself to the restroom when tears sprang into my eyes unbidden and unwieldy. During those first few months, I only escaped work twice to fly the thousands of miles to see my mother. She had refused treatment for the cancer, including surgery, and I dreaded the months ahead of her.  

And just when I thought I might be getting a handle on managing my mom's situation, she became suicidal. This added panic and horror on top of grief and worry. Working long hours went from difficult to impossible. When my mother first settled on suicide, she decided to stop eating. After a month of this, I was on another cross-continental flight. When each situation was resolved, there was always something else. While still intent on starving herself to death, she became a danger to herself with kitchen knives. It was all too much and despite the looming work deadline, it was time for me to put work away and focus on her...completely. 

In June, I took off on another flight across the country.  After five days with my mother, the emails started rolling in; my boss said "the customers need you."  "Need me for what?" I wanted to say; try as I might, I could not come up with any serious consequence for missing my deadline for a few weeks. The world was simply not going to end as a result of the delay nor was the company going to go down in flames. But, I felt the pressure to show no weakness and keep marching on at work as if my whole life had not been turned upside down.

When I wrote to my boss, informing him that I needed time and I couldn't return to work right away because my mother had terminal cancer, he responded by telling me that the customers had to have what we promised them NOW.  Then he said "I hope your mother gets better soon." What part of "terminal" was he missing or misunderstanding?  Or was it simply that he could care less? 

Against my better judgement, I flew back to work and rejoined the "team." That lasted only a short time until I heard from that same kind neighbor who had called me months earlier that my mother was discovered contemplating knives at considerable length. Specifically, she seemed to be considering how to end her life with the assistance of one or more of them. I made a last minute airplane reservation and tried to hang on through one last meeting. There was an important vote to cast at the end of the meeting making it inappropriate and practically impossible for me to leave prior to the vote.  When the meeting ran over, by 15 minutes then half and hour and then only because a coworker wanted to go on about something at length which could have easily been postponed to another time, I lost all patience. I interrupted my rambling coworker to say "My mother is committing suicide and I need to catch a flight; can we wrap this up please?" The coworker did not acknowledge my interruption but went on as if nothing had been said. No one in the room said a word nor helped bring the meeting to a close. Fifteen minutes later, when the vote had finally been cast, I ran out of the room and began the impossible race to the airport. Once on the plane, I could barely keep myself sane. I was crazy worried about my mother and furious with my coworker.  

To bring the story to a close, my mother passed away two short weeks later by her own will and hand.  As the waves of grief rolled in, I couldn't possibly go back to work as normal. I attempted to postpone an important meeting until I could get back on my feet and return to some semblance of normal, no matter how temporary.

How did the senior engineer who was in charge of the meeting respond to my request to postpone?  His words were brief but the impact was not: "No. Everyone's mother dies."

Some might excuse these remarks and events as simply insensitive rather than intentionally hostile.

But the label on their behavior didn't matter.  What mattered is that they had masterfully added trauma on top of trauma and left me in a place where recovery was longer and harder than it ever needed to be.   

And as for giving it all to my work.  That ended the day my mother passed away.


Have you had a similar experience to this blog (The Cost of Low Empathy) or would you like to share a story, concern, or experience that relates to what you have just read?  Click here to share (all responses are private and kept confidential). 


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