Peaks and Valleys of empathy

This topic has been sitting in my post queue for ages and I don’t feel I did it justice quite as well as I wanted, but it will never get anywhere unless it is published, so better imperfect than never ūüėČ

Lots of talk on the net about DevOps and empathy and it’s got me thinking and reading a lot lately. I’m curious as to what success others have in bringing up empathy in regards to work and how successful they are in trying to create an environment where we convey empathy.¬† It strikes me as a complex issue in the sense that¬†I¬†correlate empathy to our moral compass and having sympathy and shared values as a foundation, yet, as a society and as an industry, we don’t really talk about this in any quantifiable way.

I’ve been reading papers on empathy, morality and the scientific understanding thereof as well as the books and blogs such as “The Moral Landscape” by Sam Harris and I‚Äôve sort of come to a realization that the call for empathy in the tech industry is mostly describing¬†the end result of empathy in specific frames.¬† It‚Äôs like we‚Äôre cheerleading the symptom we describe as empathy but throwing up barriers to the actors and methods to convey empathy (or at least recognize it).

How does one adjust their moral compass to have empathy for one another? How do we get over political, ideological and seemingly more critically religious dispositions of morality and come to an agreement or at least discover shared concerns?¬†Can one really ‚Äúdesign‚ÄĚ in empathy through force by merely describing how people should perceive it or show it? Does talking about empathy as an end result actually mean anything or fix anything?

One¬†very simplistic but very common theme I see discussed everywhere is this common us vs them thing, its pervasive in almost everything tech from software to devices and choice of¬†gaming platforms. For example, ¬†some people will be altruistic about Open Source, others see value in commercial enterprises or the freedom to choose products and services that we see fit. How can we be empathetic towards people making these decisions on their own if we stand on our beliefs on ideological platforms vs. having a rational foundation? Could we not borrow what Sam Harris talks about and say that both are just as valid and offer “peaks” in the moral landscape?¬† I bring this up because we often talk about technology, services, software and ideas in these¬†absolutes and in doing so, it seems to train our minds to accept them and take pride in them essentially further removing us from empathy.

I sort of see this pride barrier as being pervasive in the industry and bleeding out as a cultural value. I see it in how people respond or interact with the feminism movement, as if it’s “Us vs Feminists” and not actually feminists out to improve the whole world for everyone. It’s almost like we have learned responses and trained values and that we’re actually pushing empathy further and further away but only talking about¬†empathy in¬†ways and places where empathy is accepted as¬†appropriate and not seeing how universal it could be.

A simple but pervasive example is¬†the “peaks” and “valleys” of software and human interactions and our disdain for empathy is Microsoft. One could say Microsoft really screwed the pooch with Internet explorer and PC lock-in, but now that Microsoft has adjusted and released IE 10 and IE 11 and is now moving on to cyclic monthly updates on most of their platforms and opening up their technologies, can people learn to show a little empathy and recognize that Microsoft of all companies has “left the valley” and is “climbing the peak”?¬† Do we ever have discussions like this or will people perpetually write off Microsoft because they sat on their laurels for too long and had a lack of vision?¬† It’s a low on the totem pole discussion of empathy for sure, but if you ask me, it’s the very form that drives so much angst, fear, uncertainty and doubt in the industry that its simply an easy target for such discussions. It seems these simple things are what train us to avoid the complex ones or not just avoid them but set our response thereof.

One could target the ideals of the GNU licensing and how it works and what the beliefs behind it are but instead of talking about it in “peaks and valleys” compared to other licenses and software models, we often choose to hold it as the gold standard ideologically.¬† Is that really building up an understanding of empathy? Does Open Source or Commercial software have to win absolutely? Is the GNU license built to be divisive and should that be held up as a superior way to achieve empathy (or anything)?

Outside of software, how does one talk about empathy when business is purely a “win it or lose” it concept? It’s fiercely competitive and predatory.¬† In one aspect this is how people see capitalism as a positive aspect of society but at the same time, if we really want to have empathy for one another, isn’t the preferential system the one that is a little bit less competitive for competitive sake but more altruistic in the human aspect? I‚Äôve read some papers that cite wealthy and successful people have a tough time with empathy yet, we often cherish these people and the notion one day we might be wealthy too as a reason for our drive and passion for what we do. Is our system of work designed to drive out empathy?

I’m often hearing people say we need to take more risk and “don’t do things because you have always done them that way”, yet, we don’t seem to look at work, empathy, and morality as “peaks” and “valleys” but rather ideological absolute points that are driven or accepted by a specific few – ¬†there doesn’t seem to be a process or pattern by which I or anyone can do something separate but equal. Without actually having the discussion of the peaks and valleys how do we know whatever it is that we’re doing is actually working? Do we only get acceptance of peaks when recognized by people apparently more “Superior” to us recognize them – such as executives, board members and C-teams? ¬†In the case of some of my jobs, the compass of the company was set by the CEO and Sr. Management and if you didn’t live up to those “peaks” you were out of your job – regardless of how passionate, moral or empathetic you were. In many ways it seems we’re often predisposed to peaks without actually discussing what these peaks actually are.

How do we change this? How do we grow?¬† How do we really talk about empathy in the DevOps world and really talk about it? I don’t mean standing up as speakers in conferences and saying “I’ll probably get fired for this” because you’re talking to other humans like human beings but actually talking about the unwritten rules that appear to make us uncomfortable or wrong in having empathy for one another?

I see my friends in the feminist movement saying to stop treating women as if their different and don’t defend them for being women or put them on a pedestal but treat them as equals. Maybe ideas like this should be universal – our managers, CEO’s and executives probably shouldn’t be on a pedestal but seen for the human beings they are not that they deserve more or less than anyone else. ¬†Wouldn’t this help alleviate the concept of wealthy or privileged people having low compassion for others? Wouldn’t this help women generally feel more empowered and respected? ¬†(pillars of empathy?) Do we ever discuss these parallels or will we always see them as movements? ¬†The feminist movement is a constant reminder women need our support, not to be treated like damsels in distress yet the same could be said for every human being. We¬† males often have a¬†very¬†tough time recognizing or accepting our distress as if that is a cultural and prideful norm so we often write off other movements because of our failure to recognize our own parallels. The feminist movement isn’t separate from us when seen through the eyes of empathy but rather something that empowers us all. Do we ever talk about this?

I for one thank our “nerd culture” because prior to it being accepted I was an outcast shunned from society destined to be a dirty grungy basement dweller who plays D&D (in the publics eye) yet something changed and society seems to embrace this culture but in hindsight only “apparently so” and very superficially.. ¬†Maybe its embraced because of TV shows, marketing, branding and rich people getting rich from .COMs and such. Do people really have empathy for my passions in what I do in life or is it merely acceptable because everyone wants in because its apparently cool now? The last thing I want is for everything we work on, from DevOps to feminism to culture and building successful businesses to become passe because we forget it’s really about us in the end.

Should we not talk about our brains? How some people are wired differently? How religion, faith and personal views shape our morality and how that drives our compass and empathy responses? How can we as society learn to disconnect our personal preferences and personal emotions to understand one another if we don’t “map” and visualize our collective “well being” and actually respect those decisions?¬† If all we talk about is empathy in such a superficial context, are we not perpetuating the ignorance and simply buying what others are saying as true without actually dissecting those truths?

It’s a big question and I don’t expect a black and white response. I just hope people are actually thinking through these concepts in a hundred-foot view and not through¬†their own biases. That is terribly hard for us humans to do, especially when a lot of our biases, ethics, morals and empathetic responses are more cultural, religious and ideologically based rather then derivative of actual study and research. ¬†I’m not the first nor the last but it certainly seem that discussing our moral landscape (thanks Sam Harris)¬† seems to cause much hate and angst towards us as if we’re trespassing beliefs that shouldn’t be trespassed. ¬†Is that another unwritten rule biting us in the ass keeping us from growing up?

Put on your thinking caps and think about empathy and your moral compass and what you share with others and how you can give credit to different “peaks” and “Valleys”. Look at your choices, your decisions and think for a bit about how you feel, how you act, how you shop, how you live, what you choose to do in your life and why. Is empathy really a driving factor in any of this? If not, how do you make it so? In making it so, are we not recognizing how to better our society, our way of life, our work and our shared feelings? I’m extremely thrilled that many people in the DevOps movement are talking about empathy and there is a huge sense of pride in merely having this discussion.

I don’t have the answers. In this case, I think reminding ourselves to ask the question is the real solution. I don‚Äôt think the answer is my peaks and valleys, but that we all have shared peaks and valleys even if we view them differently.

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