PM Articles > Kimberly Wiefling > Walk a Mile in Another Flawed Human Being's Shoes:
Developing Empathy Through Writing Imaginary Letters

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Walk a Mile in Another Flawed Human Being's Shoes:
Developing Empathy Through Writing Imaginary Letters

By Kimberly Wiefling

At one of my monthly mentoring sessions with Dr. Edgar Schein, world-renowned organizational culture guru, I was ranting about my frustrations with one of my project teams. His response? "You don't have any empathy." That gave me pause.

It's true that I have ridiculously high expectations of myself and others (this is an exact quote from one of my performance reviews at HP long ago), and quite frankly I do struggle to develop empathy for "underperformers." But since I haven't been able to find an organization full of superheroes, I strive to make things work with flawed colleagues and my own hopelessly flawed self. Alas, even after decades of striving to become a more effective human being, I still lack the emotional intelligence required to be sufficiently empathetic to myself and others.

What would happen if we could read our colleagues' minds? Would we develop more empathy for each other?

To be honest, I often hallucinate that I'm more competent than others, and sometimes fall into the trap of doing everything myself. Unfortunately even a high-performing individual is no match for a challenging project. Complex projects are a team sport, and I know I need a team to achieve my goals. (I sometimes mutter, "There is no I in TEAM, but there is an I in WIN.") So, what's an unreasonable, overly demanding project leader to do? One of my friends advised me to "walk a mile in the other person's shoes," but how to do it? Hmmm . . .

I began to wonder what would happen if we could read our colleagues' minds. Would we develop more empathy for each other if we experienced the world from their perspective? Or would we have even more reason to want to strangle them in their sleep? I decided to explore this by writing some imaginary letters from people who are currently driving me nuts.

Letter from a Team Member to Their Project Manager

Dear Ridiculously Demanding Project Manager,

I realize that you think your project is the only thing that occupies me, and you're disappointed that I have repeatedly failed to deliver my action items by their due dates. Unfortunately my boss has other ideas about how I should spend my time. You may not realize this, but she's assigned me to work 20% time on five different projects. When I ask her to prioritize which are the most important she assures me that "they are all number one!"

That wouldn't be so bad, except that the manager of one of those other projects is even more of a bully than you are. He stops by my cubicle daily to check on my progress, and once in a while he brings me my favorite Starbucks coffee. Yes, even though I think he's a jerk, I do drink the coffee.

Quite frankly, I feel bad about letting you down. I take pride in doing quality work, but I'm not an octopus! I just can't do a great job while spreading myself so thin. As a result I'm ignoring your emails, delaying responding to your phone calls, and skipping the team meetings in order to avoid having to face you.

Yes, I realize that your project is much more strategically important for our business than the other things I'm working on, but try to imagine how stuck I feel. You probably think that I should stand up to my manager and insist that she allocate more of my time to your project, but the truth is that I can't afford to risk losing my job. My daughter just entered an expensive college, and my wife isn't working at the moment because she needs to take care of her aging parents. But, don't worry, their health is pretty fragile so my wife will probably be free to go back to work soon, and I'll be willing to take more risks.

I'm truly sorry to disappoint you, but I'm not a superhero.

- Your Woefully Inadequate Team Member

If I received a letter like this from someone on my team I might think more deeply about the reasons that they're not delivering on their project promises. Instead of blaming them, perhaps I'd even find a way to include their manager in a discussion about the relative priority of the five projects that they're working on. And I'd feel a lot more empathy for their situation. Heck, I might even start bringing them coffee!

Letter from an Executive Sponsor to Their Project Team

Dear Uninspired, Disgruntled Employees,

I know you think I'm an awful leader for putting your team under unreasonable pressure to get this project done on a death march schedule, and without the resources you need to succeed. But I hope you'll consider the following facts before you completely write me off and start looking for another job.

Here's the deal . . . last year our competitors completely kicked our butts by introducing products that leapfrogged our outdated technology. Our stock price tumbled, and the board of directors is riding me like a rented mule to get this project done -- "or else." Revenues are down, and we've blown our budget for the last three quarters. I was hoping to avoid another downsizing, but if we don't get this new product out the door by the end of this year we're probably going to have to lay off another 20% of our people.

I couldn't sleep for weeks after last year's cutbacks due to thinking about the impact on the lives of the people we let go, as well as the damage to the morale of those who remained. I haven't told anyone this -- not even my wife -- but I even went to counseling to help me deal with my grief over the layoffs and feelings of inadequacy about contributing to our declining business. But I don't dare show my vulnerability to you because I'm keenly aware of how much you all loathe me, and I fear that any show of weakness on my part would just invite more criticism and further damage morale.

It might seem ridiculous to you , but I dreamed of being promoted to an executive position for many years before I got this job because I thought I could make a positive difference to a company, or at least a part of one. I, too, have suffered under poor executive leadership in the past. Somehow I thought I'd be different -- that I'd be able to do the right things and lead with the clarity and courage I found lacking in the execs I despised. Unfortunately I've come to realize that leading at the executive level is a lot more complicated than I ever imagined, and I'm often faced with choosing between bad and worse.

How did our business get into this mess? Obviously I must have contributed to our problems in a multitude of ways, but it's just a whole lot easier for me to blame you all and pressure you to fix it for me.

I hope you'll pull off the miracle that I need to keep my job and save this company. If not, the fact is that I'll have a lot harder time finding another job than you will, and I just don't know if I can take being unemployed for another 18-month job search. Also, my buddies tell me that age discrimination is on the rise, so I don't even know if I'll be able to get another position doing the kind of work for which I'm suited.

I deeply apologize for the pain I'm causing you on on this impossible project, but we're out of options and I'm really hoping to salvage what remains of our business.

- Your Desparate and Lackluster Executive Sponsor

Perhaps if I received a letter like this from our project's executive sponsor I'd feel a lot more inspired to find creative ways to make the project work instead of wasting time carefully explaining how the schedule is unreasonable.

Letter from a Genius Team Member to Their More Average Colleagues

Dear Project Colleagues,

Sorry about the "I'll be nicer if you'll be smarter" sign on my desk. I know I should be more polite and collaborative at work, but sometimes I just can't help myself. I have been told over and over again that relationships are important at work, but I've got a genius IQ, I'm obsessed with getting results, and I really hate to fail. Yes, I've read about EQ and know that it's a better indicator of success than IQ, but I still struggle to appreciate the rest of you who are what my mother calls "differently gifted" -- in other words, "not as smart as me."

I'm committed to treating my colleagues with courtesy and respect, but sometimes I just want to jump on you and file your teeth down! My friends tell me that I should meditate, but I'm afraid if I become too calm and accepting of the status quo our project will fail miserably. I know some of you think it's just another consumer product, and the world won't stop if it's late to market with crappy quality, but this is my first job out of college and I was really hoping to launch my career with a success here. Please, I've never failed in my short life, and I'm not sure I would survive it.

Look, I don't want to spend eternity in hell for acting like a nimrod at work. And sometimes I wish I had a rewind and erase button on my mouth. But, I'd really appreciate it if you'd try to see past my sometimes rude behavior to the core of who I really am -- a highly-motivated, hard-working young professional trying to prove that I'm worthy of the high expectations my parents had for me when they sent me to Stanford . . . at great expense, I might add.

Oh, and it would be nice to be invited to lunch sometime, too. I've never admitted this in public, but it's lonely being super smart. And when I see you all heading out midday I feel like I'm in high school gym class again and I was the last person to get picked to be on the baseball team. I'm too shy to ask to be included, but I'd sure like to join you.

- Your Socially Awkward Project Engineer

If one of my brilliant colleagues wrote me this letter my irritation with their quirks might turn to compassion. Hey, I might even invite them to lunch! Who knows, I might even pay.

Letter from a Project Team Member from the Distant Past

Dear Kimberly,

Seriously? Do you really think you can get away with pushing people to nonsensical extremes just to get a new, completely superfluous product out the door? When all's said and done, it's only a hunk of sheet metal, a circuit board and some software.

Get real! You probably don't realize it, but I've had a few things on my mind lately, what with the health issues I've been dealing with for the past few months. Instead of finding me the engineering help I requested, you just turned up the pressure. I only hope that when you're suffering some painful life experience you will be working on a project from hell with a despot for a project manager who doesn't show you any compassion.

Bite me!

- Had It With Your Tyranny

If someone had written me this letter during my first project leadership experience I might have stopped being such an imbecile at least a decade sooner.

Henry Ford said, "I hired employees and people came to work!" I know how you feel, Henry! Work would be easy if it weren't for other human beings. But venting our frustrations, for example by resorting to humiliation and denigration, harms people deeply. Empathy, compassion, and sincere appreciation heal people in ways I'd never imagined early in my career. I sincerely hope that I've learned my lesson, and will spend the rest of my life being the kind of leader I truly admire.

Yeah, I really mean it.

- Kimberly

Kimberly Wiefling, founder of Wiefling Consulting and co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, is the author of Scrappy Project Management (published in English and Japanese), and the executive editor of the "Scrappy Guides" series. Kimberly helps managers become leaders and groups of people become true teams that can achieve what seems impossible -- and would be for any individual acting alone. "Impossible" just means we haven't figured out how to do it yet!

©Copyright 2001-2016 Wiefling Consulting. All Rights Reserved.

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