If People Are Round And Policies Are Square, How Can They Fit Together?

I worked for years as an engineer. It was my job to think logically and at scale. Working in this way requires processes to be uniform—when x happens, y is the result. You don’t have to be an engineer to understand how this concept not only applies but is often essential to our everyday life. We want the scientists manufacturing our medications to do it exactly the same way every time. We want red lights to work properly. This thinking often translates to people. We want our coworkers to do what they’re supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it so we can get our jobs done—every time. Life is easiest when it’s consistent; even when policies are uniform. Right?

It is true. Uniformity and consistency keep things moving. But here’s the catch: Humans aren’t uniform, and life is not consistent. So, while there will always be a need for uniformity—stopping at red lights—it’s important that our policies, rules, and processes don’t come before our people. I admit that I did not always recognize this reality. In the past I regularly led with logic and reason rather than empathy and compassion. In fact, I used to take pride in my ability to get the job done, regardless of the human fallout.

Then, one day I was at the receiving end of this logic-and-reasoning approach. I was steeped in grief from a painful divorce and the death of my bonus dad, Nine. My supervisor knew I was going through a divorce, and yet, when I told him my stepdad died—before I even asked for any time off—he felt the need to inform me that “step” parents weren’t included in the bereavement policy, and if I took any time I off, it would need to be vacation time. I knew the policy forwards and backward, and I wasn’t intending to ask for bereavement leave.

Still, I was shocked. The policy defined Nine as a notch below “dad.” but the truth is Nine was more than a dad to me. The “step” for me was irrelevant. How could a company decide who was worthy of my grief? And why was the person I worked closely with for years denying me an ounce of understanding, an ounce of empathy?

Yes, I said, “empathy,” but before you decide you don’t need it, hear me—a logical, reasonable, process-driven engineer—out. Empathy doesn’t mean you have to care about everyone or agree with anyone. Empathy means you simply need to try to understand another’s perspective. It doesn’t mean you have to grant innumerable grievance days to people.

Here I was, a dedicated employee with five weeks of vacation left on the books—clearly, I was not one who abused my PTO—and yet, they couldn’t, wouldn’t even offer me the grace of acknowledging my loss or encouraging me to take time off to grieve my loss. It was if I was going to take any time off, it would have to be vacation time. In the end, unempathetic assumptions like this ultimately cost the organization a valuable employee. For me, the experience still proved invaluable: it was one of the first steps of my empathy journey. A journey that has been challenging and at times painful, but I assure you, it’s a journey worth taking.

We all seek understanding at various times in our lives. When was the last time you sought understanding from your partner, colleague, sibling? Did you receive it? Are you listening for understanding to those who seek empathy from you? Empathy is not mushy sentiments—I don’t do mushy—it is not weakness. Empathy is what strengthens the connections between us.

Build more empathy muscle: Become an empathy engineer

Originally posted on Forbes.com

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