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.

In response to my recent plugging of my daughter’s nascent contract programming business and my reference to the POTUS’ Twittering support of his own daughter’s business to justify it, a long time subscriber and correspondent wrote, “I am SICK TO DEATH of the politicization of EVERYTHING. Strike two, I unsubscribe next time.”

Huh. I thought I’d indulged in nothing more than a harmless wisecrack, and in fact, unlike various recent Oscar winners, I’ve restrained myself from political commentary in KJR in spite of near-daily temptations.

And, let me cast my vote in the same direction: I’m also sick to death of the politicization of everything, although I doubt my correspondent and I mean the same thing when we say it.

Which brings us to this week’s anti-politicized topic: dealing with politicization in the organization you work in.

But first, let’s be clear about what “politicized” means.

At the easiest-to-deal-with level, politicization means talking about politics in the office. It’s easy to deal with because given the current public political climate it’s an awful idea. Nothing good can come from it … no one will persuade anyone who isn’t already on their side of a given issue and there’s no need to persuade someone who already is.

Either way the most likely outcome of a political conversation is inflammation for all conversing parties, who all also risk damaging their personal relationships with the each other party in the bargain.

At the next level, politicization is a synonym for tribalism: Dividing the world into us and them and viewing them, not as opponents, but as enemies. In the public sphere this is what has made our political climate so toxic. In the enterprise it’s one of the root causes of organizational silos with high walls and minimal collaboration.

Worse is that tribalism almost invariably escalates, as each side views hostile behavior on the other’s part through a magnifying lens, calling for an even-more amplified response.

It’s my impression that silo-driven attitudes and behavior are, as a broad trend, becoming worse in most enterprises, although, as there is no good measure of organizational silo height I can’t prove the point. Nonetheless, whatever the trend line, politicized organizations in this sense of the word handicap themselves when competing with their more cognitive counterparts.

But not as badly as organizations that take politicization to the next level. Call it political epistemology.

Epistemology — the study of what it means to “know” something — is, in addition to being eye-glazingly opaque, quite frustrating to deal with. Peel the epistemological onion and you’ll reach two equally unsatisfying conclusions: (1) It is sensible to be more confident of some propositions than others, based on the comparative levels of evidence and logic in their favor. But (2) it isn’t sensible to be completely certain of any proposition, with the possible exception of the proposition that certainty isn’t possible.

Political epistemology is what happens when what to believe and how certain to be of it depends on an individual’s tribal inclinations.

Never mind public policy and how someone’s party affiliation shapes their beliefs about What Works. There are plenty of business examples right in front of you, from decisions about strategy, to IT’s choice of virtualization technology, to which PaaS provider is best, and whether to deploy its technology stack inside the corporate firewall or to contract for external hosting.

No, no, no, no, no. I’m not saying Democrats favor private clouds while Republicans prefer public ones. Among the metaphorical breakdowns here: Businesses tend to have more than just two major metaphorical political parties. Heck, IT tends to have more than just two, with many IT professionals enjoying at least dual citizenship besides, with such fracture lines as Windows vs Linux, COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) vs open source, Waterfall vs Agile, and Engineering-and-Architecture vs Management-and-Finance.

The hazard doesn’t come from individuals having these inclinations. They’re natural and probably inevitable.

No, the hazard comes from the close-minded certainty that starts with “my tribe is good, my tribe’s allies are good enough, and every other tribe is deluded and evil” and finishes with the by now commonplace phrase “confirmation bias,” which means, if you’re among the uninitiated, that people uncritically accept any and all inputs that affirm their pre-existing beliefs while nit-picking to death anything that appears to contradict them.

Is Keep the Joint Running becoming politicized? As the poet Robert Burns wrote,

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion

Which is to say, you’ll have to tell me.