Illustration by Sibel Ergener

Even the Office Asshole Can Learn Empathy

It ain’t easy, though

Everyone who has worked in an office knows there are different types of assholes — assholes who don’t do anything, assholes who do everything, assholes who steal your ideas and don’t give you credit.

But one particular breed is the toughest pill to swallow: The hardworking asshole who gets results. They are a complete nightmare to work with, but because higher-ups are so dazzled by their ability to produce, their track record all but guarantees they’ll rocket straight to the top, leaving stressed-out, demoralized employees in their wake.

Writing at Harvard Business Review, leadership consultant and author Annie McKee insists there’s hope for these people, and that you really can teach an old jerk new humanity. She tells us about one such asshole she coached named Miguel, a golden boy in consulting who could turn around any struggling department, magically making money while trimming the fat. Seven years into Miguel’s Midas touch, however, a senior manager considering Miguel for a CEO position decided to widen the lens when he evaluated Miguel’s performance. This time, he saw a troubling pattern. McKee writes:

“To start with, this smart leader discovered, Miguel’s financial wizardry was short-lived. All of the great results that he’d achieved in each division fell apart within a year or so of his leaving the post. Looking deeper, many of the divisions he had led were actually worse off than before he worked there. Good people had quit. Teams didn’t function. The cultures were toxic. Why? Miguel had put results before relationships over and over again. People felt disrespected and angry. They’d become actively disengaged and were furious at the company for allowing Miguel to treat them as he had.”

Miguel called McKee when he realized the jig was up. She agreed to coach him and started by asking him if he actually cared about any of the people he had worked with. Like a true asshole, he answered, “No, I really don’t. I care about results.”

Research can shed light here: One, we know that many bosses are bad because they’re groomed and promoted for their skills and results, not their ability to manage people. That same research found that many bosses are also narcissists, precisely the sort of people good at rising to the top because they’re good at making the people promoting them think highly of them.

Those narcissist bosses are also good at making money. And there’s a well-documented empathy deficit among the rich and successful — they are, in effect, bigger jerks than everyone else, because they can be. According to the existing research, we can count the ways: People driving more expensive cars are more likely to cut off people in shitty cars at four-way stops. In one study, richer people took candy out of a jar and stuffed it into their rich mouths, in spite of that jar being clearly labeled as candy for children. It goes on and on like this: Rich people shoplift more! Their brains respond with LESS activity to pictures of cancer-riddled children! One study found they’re more likely to lie just to win a measly $50, even though $50 is more like $5 to a rich person.

Obviously, McKee had her work cut out for her, and helping Miguel was no cakewalk:

“I coached him on reading people. I watched him at meetings and gave him feedback. I pointed out when he was trampling people and when he made them feel valued. Over several months, he made marginal progress.”

Wait, what? Marginal progress? Over several months. He. Made. Marginal. Progress. McKee, in fact, almost quit coaching Miguel, the progress was so marginal. So guess what finally got through to him? His wife, tired of his comical efforts at human mimicry and his workaholic lifestyle, threatened to leave him. “I’m done,” she told him. “You don’t care about me. You don’t care about the kids. You’re blowing up this family.”

Long story short, Miguel got his shit together, and over the next few months, he apparently began demonstrating behavior that resembled what many of us would recognize as a carbon-based life form. He paid attention to his kids and what they cared about and what happened to them. For the first time in his life, he learned what his wife liked to watch on television. He learned how to — get this — ask people questions, pause and then respond with something relevant to the subject matter. He repeated all this behavior in the office, and eventually, by actually getting to know his colleagues and letting them get to know him, Pinocchio became a real boy.

So in the end, McKee’s advice for how to learn empathy is really very simple: Ask questions, be present with people and stop multi-tasking. It’s just that first you have to squander everything in the entire world that matters to you, that has ever mattered to you and that makes any life worth living.

But hey, we all have to start somewhere.