Empathy is widely misunderstood.

We’re told, for example, that psychopaths lack it. And yet we’re also told they’re able to figure out their victims’ emotional buttons and levers, exploiting them to achieve their nefarious goals.

Accurately figuring out someone’s emotional buttons and levers sure sounds like empathy to me.

I’m just messin’ with you. True empathy means vicariously feeling what someone else feels. Psychopaths don’t experience the feeling. They infer it.

If you want to be a mensch, true empathy is pretty useful. But if you want to be an effective leader, psychopathic empathy is the way to go.

Oh, now, don’t look so horrified. I’m not suggesting you become an out-and-out psychopath. Just to emulate this one ability.

See, something leaders have to accomplish from time to time is organizational change, “time to time” meaning every single day. Sometimes we’re talking about the micro level of getting a bit more out of an employee whose performance is currently just an increment better than adequate. Other times the change might be a complete transformation of how an organization gets its work done.

Inept leaders, of the when-I-say-frog-you-jump variety, rely on their authority to make change happen.

Inevitably, they fail … not in making any change happen, but in making the intended change happen. Put leaders like this in charge of some dog sleds and they’ll end up pulling not only the sleds themselves, but also dragging their huskies behind them as they complain to each other about how lazy their dogs are.

Effective leaders, in contrast, don’t only get their huskies to pull the sleds. Their canine followers think pulling the sled is their idea, and an excellent idea it is, too.

But enough. If I keep this up the metaphor police will hunt me down like a dog. And so …

Effective leaders of organizations don’t say “frog” expecting their minions to immediately jump. Effective leaders rely on persuasion. They do everything they can to encourage the men and women who do the work of their organization to understand the intended change and why it’s a good idea. More than that they encourage them to participate in figuring out what the change should look like.

Much of which requires empathy. Not empathy of the I-feel-your-pain variety. I-feel-your-pain empathy might, in fact, lead to unproductive management hand-wringing — regret over the pain the change will inflict on members of the workforce.

Nope. Effective leaders have developed their inner psychopath — their ability to analytically figure out how different individuals and groups are likely to respond to what they have in mind, and why. It’s this insight that lets them adjust their plans and their communications so as to minimize resistance and maximize active participation.

Example: Quite a few years back I facilitated a discussion about resistance to the implementation of electronic medical records (EMR) systems. One participant vented his frustration that of all people, it was the doctors who were most actively resisting this obviously important change in how hospitals and clinics do their work. He just couldn’t understand how the best-educated members of his workforce could be such Luddites.

And so, we applied some psychopathic empathy to the situation.

What, I asked, motivates doctors? Why did they choose their profession? Answer: They want to cure patients of what ails them.

And were doctors (I asked) likely to consider the planned EMR system something that helps them cure patients, or a distraction when compared to clipboards at the foot of the bed?

This having happened in the pre-tablet era, the new EMR system meant walking over to a new and unfamiliar application running on a PC that wasn’t as conveniently located as a clipboard at the foot of the bed. Distraction it was.

Second example: Back in the day, when IT leaders were trying to pry their batch COBOL programmers loose from their old habits to embrace object-oriented programming and on-line, real-time systems, many refused to be pried. Why might that be? Shouldn’t a bunch of techies love new and shiny tech?

Well … no. The combination of OO and designing and programming on-line systems was a change that invalided the COBOLites’ hard-won expertise and turned them back into novices. Why would they like that?

We’re talking about a clear-eyed thought process, not a complicated one. Just look at the change you have in mind through the eyes of different stakeholders and stakeholder groups and figure out how it will affect them.

Psychopaths use their ability to infer motivation to manipulate people. You could use the same ability to persuade them to follow your lead.

What’s the difference? Good question, for which I’m not sure there’s a good answer.

Snippets from an email exchange about the H-1B visa program, edited and paraphrased for length and suitability:

Correspondent: Have you ever weighed in on the H-1B Visa concern that bedevils American IT workers? If not, why not?

Bob: It’s a complex topic I know far too little about to express a useful opinion. As someone once said, better to remain silent and have people think I’m a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

Correspondent: I urge you then to please do research the subject and then speak out, hopefully in favor of the American citizen IT worker. I fear if outsourcing continues this may inadvertently decimate the pool of available native STEM workers who may avoid pursuing STEM professions due to frustration, leaving it to cheaper non-immigrants.

Bob: I’ll think about taking it on, but I won’t promise anything (no, that isn’t ManagementSpeak for “No”).

Correspondent: More likely, it’s that you know who butters your bread, Bob. That’s right, management. And management is about profit for themselves and shareholders at anyone else’s expense, including the indentured servant Indians who suffer under near slave conditions; and your friends, neighbors, and possibly relative American citizens against whom you choose to be, shall we say, less than a champion.

Look in the mirror, buddy. You won’t like the cowardice you see. ^*&# you and your 1% crowd.


In case you haven’t heard of it, “The H-1B is a non-immigrant visa in the United States under the Immigration and Nationality Act, section 101(a)(17)(H). It allows U.S. employers to temporarily employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.”

Here’s what I, in my own, cowardly way, know, suspect, and conjecture about the H-1B program, divided into two parts: Public policy, and management decision-making.

Public policy first

I don’t generally do public policy, because KJR’s raison d’etre (pardon my French) is to give you something you can put to immediate practical use. Opining on public policy doesn’t achieve this.

Because I know too little about the subject to share a Strongly Held Opinion, I won’t. Instead, here are a few points to consider as you form your own:

  • Near-slave conditions? This is like calling your preferred political villain a Nazi. Slavery, and Nazi-ism, are far too deplorable to trivialize.
  • Econ 101: Worker visa programs are all a form of protectionism. In this case it’s the labor marketplace that’s being protected. The extent you favor or dis-favor the H-1B program probably depends on your views about protectionist economic policy.
  • Business ethics: Is the H-1B program immoral? I can’t personally come up with an ethical framework that makes hardworking foreigners less deserving of employment than hardworking U.S. citizens, other than the moral logic of protectionism — see previous bullet. From a moral perspective one might, in fact, plausibly argue that managerial hiring decisions should be purely meritocratic, entirely ignoring citizenship.
  • Recruiting goals: Well-managed organizations recruit the most talented individuals they can attract. Including H-1B workers expands the talent pool employers have to draw on, improving their prospects for doing so.
  • Unintended consequences: To the extent an employer wants to minimize IT labor rates, reducing or eliminating the number of H-1B visas issued would simply move the work offshore instead of moving the workers on-shore. If the work is on-shore, at least that means worker wages are spent here in the U.S.A.
  • Supply and demand: IT unemployment is, right now, very low (~3.9%), so demand exceeds supply. This explains at least some of the industry demand for H-1B workers. Reduced labor costs explain most of the rest.

Practical, immediately useful advice

For IT managers:
If you’d rather employ U.S. citizens than foreign IT professionals, embrace Agile. While colleagues of mine tell me offshore Agile is possible, there’s near-unanimous consensus among the Agile experts I know that team proximity matters, and matters a lot more than when using Waterfall application development methods. Having the team all in one place makes everything easier than when team members interact across multiple time zones and through purely electronic media.

For IT professionals: Recognize that you’re in business for yourself, and that what you can do for an employer constitutes the products and services your business has to sell.

Any time and energy you spend complaining about how unfair it all is is time and energy you aren’t spending making yourself more competitive. (Hint: Embrace Agile. Smart IT managers are looking for Scrum-worthy developers.)

H-1B workers are your business rivals. Your job is to figure out how to out-compete them.