The Google Memo and why Empathy Matters

By now you’ve probably heard and read countless articles about James Damore’s memo.

Google has found itself embroiled in controversy after a sexist memo, claiming that women are less biologically suited to be engineers than men, went viral throughout the company and was later released to the public.

I’m not going to speak to the points surrounding gender that have been volleyed back and forth ad nauseam.  I read the memo and there were parts of it I felt were valid…..

Psychological safety is built on mutual respect and acceptance, but unfortunately our culture of shaming and misrepresentation is disrespectful and unaccepting of anyone outside its echo chamber.

He was referring to Google’s culture in that sentence but I think we can generalize it as something that could be true for American society as a whole today.

There were also parts of the memo that felt rather simplistic and binary…

Left Biases

Compassion for the weak
Disparities are due to injustices
Humans are inherently cooperative
Change is good (unstable)

Right Biases

Respect for the strong/authority
Disparities are natural and just
Humans are inherently competitive
Change is dangerous (stable)

Then there were the parts (many) that created the firestorm…

These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

That was one of the many.

But the part of the memo that felt worth writing about, for me at least was this…..

De-emphasize empathy.

I’ve heard several calls for increased empathy on diversity issues. While I strongly support trying to understand how and why people think the way they do, relying on affective empathy—feeling another’s pain—causes us to focus on anecdotes, favor individuals similar to us, and harbor other irrational and dangerous biases. Being emotionally unengaged helps us better reason about the facts.

I’m genuinely worried about the lack of empathy both sides of the political and cultural divide have for each other and was actually surprised to read this statement within the context of a paper that promotes the idea of psychological safety. But Mr. Damore isn’t the only person to feel this way – many who push the importance of empathy seem to lack it when it comes to those with whom they disagree.

To be fair to Mr. Damore, there is a side to the argument that defines empathy as being in agreement or in celebration of a perspective. I can understand and perhaps align with his statement a bit more if this was the working definition Mr. Damore had in his mind when he wrote that portion of the memo, but that isn’t what empathy is.

In my opinion, the fundamental flaw with Mr. Damore’s argument against empathy is that it appears to assume that there is one fundamental truth to a thing and that this truth is always supported by objective facts. While feelings are not facts, they are a fact. In other words, how a person feels about something is a fact and your opinion as to the validity of that feeling does not change the reality that the feeling is something you will have to deal with because you are dealing with a person who feels.

Mr. Damore seems to imply that there are different types of empathy in his use of the term “affective empathy” – as if we are comprised of two distinct silos; one dealing with logic and the other emotion. That’s really not how we work, thinking contaminates emotion and vice versa; rigid logic can lead to unreasonable emotion and reactions. His argument also appears to imply that logic always equates to right action; when right action is generally determined on a confluence of factors that are not always logical (values, feelings, context).  Lastly, facts are important, but folks can have different interpretations of what facts mean and the importance they ascribe to those facts may vary based on priorities.

So while thinking and feeling are two different things, they are seldom independent of one another.

Emotions are pieces of data our body gives us, they are information. Sometimes that information fits the context (feeling sad because your pet died) and sometimes they do not (becoming enraged when someone cuts you off on the highway) – but either way, they exist.

Emotions also influence us – they seek to influence an action. Sometimes the action fits the context (calling a friend for support when your pet dies) and sometimes it does not (getting out of your car and assaulting the person who cut you off on the highway).

How something feels, the response it provokes is largely influenced by reinforcement in our environments. A kiss on the cheek and hug upon first meeting a person feels warm and inviting to some. In others, it can provoke anxiety and a feeling as if one is being intruded upon. Much of how one feels is the product of how that behavior has been framed for them by their environments.

These are facts, they are the truth about how a part of us works – emotions are as helpful and as dangerous as our thinking. Our feelings about a thing are as important as our thinking about a thing. I am not saying they are superior, only that they are as important and maybe, at times more important.

The importance of empathy, socially, depends on how you define “social progress” and to what degree you prioritize it. If you define progress strictly along technological lines and also believe that innovation is the greatest good regardless of how we get there, then in your thinking empathy may not be very important. In reality, however, it is, unless of course, you share a society with folks who agree with you on everything. Empathy isn’t a moral good (I mean I think it is, but who am I?) it is a tool given to us that, among other things, allows us to more effectively reach compromise with folks who think differently than us. It allows you to better influence folks and increases your ability to not sacrifice the good in the name of the perfect. It also allows you to consider variables that may not be at the heart of the facts driving the discussion but are important to making those facts acceptable or tolerable to those who need to buy into them so that you can succeed in your objective.

Let’s imagine Joe wants his company to have a Christmas party. He wants employees to feel like the work place isn’t just about widgets and to show gratitude to his employees for their work. Susan, who is not Christian, tells Joe she’s uncomfortable with the idea because it makes her feel left out.

The facts are that it’s Joe’s party, it is Christmas and Susan is only one person.

Empathy in its most basic form would simply mean Joe connecting to the feeling of being an outsider and acknowledging Susan’s feelings on the matter as understandable.

Instead of….

“This is my company and I believe in Jesus”

In neither case (so far) is Joe giving up on the idea of a Christmas party – the question is which approach connects more closely to the goal of demonstrating gratitude? What may be the potential consequence of the other approach?

Whether you think Susan’s feelings are silly or of greatest importance is irrelevant, it’s the reality that Joe has in front of him- it is a fact as are the benefits and costs of how he chooses to deal with it.

Lacking empathy and denying the importance of feeling doesn’t remove the reality of their importance or the consequence of ignoring them, in fact, it creates the very conditions Mr. Damore argues are detrimental to a free exchange of ideas.  When empathy is lacking and is replaced with shaming or ridicule, folks will seek out those who can validate their experience.  When the context is polarized, a black or white petri dish of “you are either with us or against us”; folks will pick the side that most connects to their way of thinking.  They are willing to sacrifice parts of their thinking that are more moderate to get the support of those from the extreme.  Once that happens contextual reinforcement takes hold and they become unrecognizable from the rest of the group.

I have two daughters and have worked with and for women throughout my career.  I don’t agree with Mr. Damores argument when it comes to gender differences; I feel his ideas are simply inaccurate.

With that said, I would not have fired him – that does not change anything – it only reinforces the part of his belief that is accurate.  It would have been better to model a lesson in empathy and at the same time asserted facts that contradict his positions while tolerating his resistance to these facts as long as he adhered to company policies and procedures- this would have been a much more effective foil to what is a microcosm of the ever growing and dangerous social polarity we are facing as a culture.

Hard? Yes. Counterintuitive? Absolutely. But when you have Nazis and Communists openly engaging in violence on American streets the work has to begin, even if its’ with the smallest of examples, before it’s too late and we become unrecognizable to each other.


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