Ambition Plus Empathy: A New Definition Of Success

“This empathy stuff is all well and good,” he said, a slight frown creasing his forehead. “But sometimes you just have to get things done, right?”

It wasn’t the first time I’d gotten the question. It comes up in pretty much every culture session I run, usually more than once. It is, I would say, the single biggest misconception around the work I do.

The fear is this: If I build a culture of empathy, of kindness, of listening to understand… If I try to move away from shame and blame… Won’t people just end up getting away with bad behavior?

In this view of the world, empathy and kindness are at odds with holding people to account. “Being kind” equals “not saying anything when someone screws up,” while “holding people to account” equals “being mean.”

This way of thinking is a profound distortion of what it is to be truly kind, empathetic, and courageous. In actual fact, there is nothing kind about letting someone get away with bad behavior. Everyone gets pissed off at the bad performer, trust deteriorates, and the team suffers. Meanwhile, the person in question doesn’t have the feedback necessary to understand what’s going on -- and, without that feedback, she also has no opportunity to course-correct.



But there’s also a competing, equally inaccurate counterfactual to this misconception. It’s the idea that investing in culture, kindness and courage will invariably drive better financial outcomes.

And yet, some of the most valuable and profitable companies in the world are run by people who -- at least publicly -- fail to demonstrate any kind of interest in building cultures of courage and empathy.

Trying to convince people to build cultures of courage by promising more profit is like trying to convince your kid to be kind to Grandma so she remembers him in her will.

In other words: It misses the fundamental point. The reason we invest in courage and empathy is not because we’ll get paid for it. It’s because it is a better way to do business.

Here is the truth: It is absolutely possible to have a culture of empathy and courage that holds people to account for standards of behavior and performance.

It is absolutely possible to build a team, an organization, a company that is both deeply courageous and radically ambitious.

Not only is it possible for these things to coexist, they can coexist beautifully, supporting each other, feeding each other, creating a virtuous flywheel that generates more ambition, more accountability, more success.

A high-trust, high-accountability, high-performing team never shies away from having hard conversations about what’s working and what’s not. A high-trust, high-accountability, high-performing team never lets people get away with bad behavior. Bad behavior is addressed immediately and directly. The difference is that it’s also addressed with kindness and empathy.

But how can I hold someone to account and be empathetic?

Hear the misconception? It’s the idea that it’s unkind to hold someone to account.

But you know what’s actually unkind?

Letting people think they’re doing a good job when they’re not.

Getting frustrated with people over their performance without telling them what they need to do to address it.

Letting good performers get dragged down by people who aren’t pulling their weight.

Firing someone out of the blue without ever having given them the chance to address their deficiencies.

Empathy and kindness go hand-in-hand with holding people to account, and we can build intentional, intelligent, courageous teams that are also radically ambitious.

I don’t know why we would settle for any lesser definition of success.

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