Have you heard the expression, “Help Kills?”
No. Then let me tell you a story.
A monkey was sitting on a tree at the edge of a river, preening and grooming himself, admiring his reflection in the sparkling waters flowing below. Suddenly, the monkey sees a fish. He swoops down, plucks the fish out of the river and places it on the branch next to him.
The fish is distraught. “Put me back, put me back in the water, otherwise I’ll die,” she screams.
Grinning, the monkey shakes his head and assures the fish, “Relax sister, you aren’t going to die. I just saved you from drowning.”
Like the monkey, well intentioned CEOs, senior leaders, and department heads are busy saving us – their employees – from drowning in a deluge of desolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation, and explosive racial and civil unrest. Senior executives check in on us, offer us comfort and consolation. And God knows we need it. Comfort and consolation can be a soothing salve. Sometimes. But not every single time.
Think about it. Every time we get on Zoom, do we really need someone checking on us. Asking us how we feel? Especially, since for a large number of us Zoom has become today’s great incarceration – a COVID created Alcatraz; there’s no escaping its thumbnail cells.
Could it be, could it just be that these gestures of “sincere concern” have actually started appearing and sounding “insincere;” diminishing us, instead of lifting us? Could it be that these gestures of empathy and concern – no matter how genuine and well meaning – are now sounding symbolic and overdone, and hence hurting more than healing. Could it be, that innocent questions, such as “How can I/we help you?” vex employees/team members more than they appease?
—Especially when the sentiment is, “We are all in the same boat.” No, no, no. We aren’t. In the same ocean maybe, but not in the same boat. Merely because we can understand another’s pain doesn’t mean we know what it means to live and experience that pain. We aren’t in the same boat. Any attempt to suggest that could actually be quite exasperating.
—Especially when the comfort and consolation that employees really need, and what leaders can actually provide, given the many constraints they face, are severely misaligned. Hopes and prayers are just tokens, nothing more. The great Indian spiritual teacher, Swami Vivekananda, once said, “When the poor ask us for food, and we respond by asking them to pray and have faith in God, it’s like kicking them in the stomach.” It is. Is the comfort and consolation being offered by leaders at a time of this great tragedy food? Or is it…?
—Especially when the concern and consolation is sometimes being offered by executives who have no relationship with the employees, may never have met them, and may not even know their names. At times like this, words have negative value; their underlying symbolism can be infuriating.
Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to beat up on our overworked, under-appreciated leaders, discount or demean their well-intentioned outreaches. Why would I do that? A former C-suite executive, I understand the many predicaments and no-win situations leaders face. Perhaps your company is lucky and has been spared the downward spiral of empathy into a barren emptiness. Perhaps not.
Either way, my only purpose in writing was to make leaders aware of a knotty paradox. Sometimes even well-intentioned words and gestures can exacerbate the wounds they set out to heal. Sometimes, “Help kills.”
Never though of empathy (and sympathy) this way. A great insight into what can be a perhaps unintentional but flawed communication.
Thanks Arun. Concern and Callousness, Empathy and Emptiness – at first glance they may not appear related, but they are interwoven. Finding the right balance and mix can be extremely difficult.