Thinking about Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos, and Empathy (or Lack Thereof) — (insight from Daniel Goleman)

We have a mechanism in the brain which will close down empathy so you can think clearly.
Daniel Goleman, from his interview on the Diane Rehm Show


FocusA few days ago, Diane Rehm interviewed Daniel Goleman, prompted by the release of his new book, Focus: The Hidden Driver Of Excellence.  (Listen, and read the transcript, here).  Ms. Rehm perked up when Mr. Goleman mentioned empathy.  Here is what he said:

Well, empathy requires three things because there are three kinds of empathy, and actually each one of them draws on a different brain system. One kind of empathy is cognitive empathy, which means I understand how you think about things, how you perceive. You need that for a real dialogue, for true conversation. The other kind of empathy is emotional empathy, feeling with the person. And a third kind of empathy is empathic concern. When someone is in need, when someone is suffering, you feel for them. You want to help them. And I think that real health, particularly mental health is having all three.

And later in the hour, Mr. Goleman made this comment to a caller.

We have a mechanism in the brain which will close down empathy so you can think clearly.

So, let’s think about this.  I gave my “short” version book review of the book Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson to a Women’s Book Club this week, and talked about Steve Jobs as a leader.  He was:  (choose one):  a brilliant leader, who could get the very best out of his people.  OR, a jerk who treated his people very badly, more than once firing someone on an elevator ride.

Add to this the growing reputation of Jeff Bezos as a harsh taskmaster, not winning “favorite person of the year award” honors from the people who work for him.

Steve Jobs & Jeff Bezos - born with an empathy deficit? Or, maybe not...
Steve Jobs & Jeff Bezos – born with an empathy deficit? Or, maybe not…

And so we ask, of both Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos, were they born with some kind of empathy deficit?  Or, did they cultivate some kind of empathy deficit?  Or, do we maybe misread them?

Now, I’m a big, big fan of empathy in people, including (maybe especially)  empathy in leaders.  But I am also an unabashed fan of the work of Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos.  So, how do I reconcile my admiration for these two leaders and my preference for a leader with genuine empathy?  This is a hard question to answer.

Daniel Goleman may have pointed me to a new way of thinking about this.

Here’s what I think:  Both Jobs and Bezos had deep genuine empathy – for the people who use their products and/or services.  One friend said this about Steve Jobs:  “Steve Jobs was the greatest advocate for the customer there has ever been.  Not the consumer – that is too generic.  For the customerhis customer.  The people who would use his products.”

And, in a recent excerpt of the new book The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon by Brad Stone, the author describes the impact of a one character e-mail within Amazon.  Jeff Bezos reads e-mails from Amazon’s customers, and when a customer is unhappy, Mr. Bezos forwards the e-mail to the person who could fix the problem (the person who should never have let the problem happen) with a one character message – “?”.  Mr. Stone observed that it is out of concern for the customer (“empathy for the customer”) that Mr. Bezos says. in essence, “drop everything else you are doing and get this fixed!  NOW!!  We do not want any unhappy customers.”

In other words – Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos were/are pretty close to non-empathetic leaders for the people they worked with MAYBE! because they were so empathetic for their customers.  Or, to put it in Mr. Goleman’s words, they are not empathetic to people around them in order to think more clearly about the actual need of the people they are ultimately serving.

We do understand this principle, in general.  This is what physicians have to do, says Mr. Goleman.  Here’s more of his quote, from the interview:

Well, you know, it’s really interesting. In the book I write about a mechanism in the brain that blocks empathy. And it happens mostly with physicians. And it happens during training when physicians have to learn to cut people open to, you know, give someone a hypodermic in the eyeball. Things, you know, things that are flinch-inducing. But you have to do it for the person’s good.
So we have a mechanism in the brain which will close down empathy so you can think clearly.

If Steve Jobs, or Jeff Bezos, or any leader, is full of empathy for the co-workers in front of them, they might not think clearly about the customer that the company is seeking to serve.  Just a thought.

(And – if we understand this, and admire this, in a physician, should we seek to understand this for a business leader?)

Now, I’m not sure which approach is better.

Herb Kelleher, of Southwest Airlines fame, famously worked this way (paraphrased):  “I care about our employees.  They will care about our customers.”

Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos, seemingly put it this way:  “I care more about our customers that anyone else, including our employees.  Our employees have only one purpose:  to serve our customers.”

BUT!, here is something interesting about Steve Jobs, especially.   A lot of people who worked at Apple felt like Steve Jobs was a pretty “awful” leader.  But others, including those on his team, viewed him as a brilliant genius, who literally brought more out of them than they thought possible.  And they admired him for that.

So, I don’t know if there is a formula in this post to follow.  I might end with this – if a leader does not have empathy, that leader should get out of the leader business.

But, maybe, empathy for the person who benefits from the outcome of their work (the customer) might require, at times, “closing down empathy” for the people who do the work, in order to get the work done very well for the customer.

I think this really is an interesting question.

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