I am a human motivation nerd. For years I have been obsessed with what motivates people and even more powerfully, what motivates groups. I’ve read plenty of books (Reading list below) and, like many of us, I’ve studied plenty of people in this quest. I’ve also had the honor of running hundreds of live workshops for my teams and clients over the past 20 years. These workshops have been my laboratory for studying motivation, group dynamics and to experiment with and refine the language and ideas we use to inspire people every day. At ITX, we build software to inspire users. In our workshops, we have the complicated challenge of inspiring business leaders, the people with the investment money, to inspire highly talented artists and engineers, who we call our team, to build software products which inspire users. There is a whole-lot of inspiration for a whole lot of people in our business formula.
In the process, I have come to recognize that some people are natural leaders while others use cunning and intelligence to manipulate their way into leadership positions and it can be hard to tell the difference between them. On the other side of the leadership coin, some people are easily motivated by great leaders, while others are not. While all of the data and facts may tell a great story and the leader is able to motivate the team toward positive, inspired action, there are sometimes people who are not inspire-able. They may fake it, but deep down inside, you know something isn’t quite right. Their motivations are different. They may not be driven by the greater good. They simply don’t care.
The problem for some people, who are often quite intelligent, is their motivations. They differ significantly from the motivations of most people. They might be entertained when they are able to complexify and undermine the ideas of others or they are not inspired unless they are in control. One thing is certain, these people lack authentic concern for the people around them. The best you hope for with these folks is they pretend they are along for the ride and produce some positive results along the way. But keep your eye on them, as they are lying in wait for their opportunity to undermine your operation for their own personal gain or to meet their need for control and manipulation.
Some people are not capable of being inspired by anything but their own personal gain or worse, they are so obsessed with control they find joy in the manipulation of others. Maybe the world needs these folk. Maybe there is some mysterious value they provide in the master plan. Maybe they are simply one of those evil parts of nature we aren’t meant to understand — like mosquitoes or the bubonic plague. It is imperative to understand how to identify these folks if we want to build scalable, powerful businesses with inspired people.
Psychologists call these poor souls, who lack a conscience, sociopaths. In the book, The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout clearly articulates what a sociopath is and has shown us, through her research, as much as 4% of the population has these traits. When I read this statistic, it dawned on me: if I have over 200 employees in my firm, it is statistically possible I have as many as 8 sociopaths, “next door,” working around me. I am certain our hiring practices and our culture are better than most firms, so it highly unlikely we have so many. But it is probable we have at least a few of them.
The real problem, as Martha Stout described in her book, is successful sociopaths require a high degree of intelligence in order to appear functioning. In fact, successful sociopaths tend to be very intelligent. According to Forbes, they often find financial and career success, in part, due to their sociopathy. Their success serves to create an unfortunate positive feedback loop for their behaviors. I think of the #MeToo movement in this way. Look at all of these power-hungry attorneys, CEOs and business leaders who behave so badly while our society puts up with them because they have figured out how to manipulate and control the system and the people around them.
Great leaders, on the other hand care deeply for the people around them. They see themselves as servants to the people they lead. They make decisions which might be bad for themselves to serve the greater good. They look out for their people and have an innate ability to create more caring and more empathy in those around them.
I have been fascinated with finding a simple way to codify this concept and make it useful to others. The leaders around me could more quickly determine who to spend their time growing and who to watch carefully. We could identify which clients to run away from (and learn from) and which to protect and defend. We might do an even better job of hiring prospective employees with great potential and identifying those we should never hire. Above all else, we would have a more systematic and clear way of identifying our stars and future leaders.
I have a deep rooted belief that most of us are good people who are generally motivated in the ways described by the science of self-determination theory(Originally created by Ed Deci and Richard Ryan). We seek agency and control in our own lives. We seek growth. We seek to connect and relate to others. Ultimately, we all want to contribute to the world in some meaningful way and connect with the people around us.
The entire field of psychology is dedicated to figuring out and classifying the human motivations behind behavior. When we behave in ways which don’t jive with what we call “normal” to each other, they get classified into some sort of disorder like autism, dependent personality disorder, narcissism, kleptomania, sociopathy or one of the more than 300 disorders listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders). Herein lies the key: All of these disorders describe how we appear to others or how we behave in the context of others.
This is where empathy comes in. If all psychology and “psycho-pathology” occurs in the context of how we relate to others, then empathy must play a huge role in this classification system. I have found it useful to describe most of the disorders that impact us, at least all of those that I am familiar with in terms of empathy. There are many types of empathy as described by Daniel Goleman in his book on Social Intelligence. But, It can be simplified, at least for laymen like me, by using two types of empathy.
The first is our capacity for caring. Some folks call it affective empathy or empathic concern. It exists on a broad continuum. Some people simply do not have the capacity to care for anyone else while others authentically tear-up at the thought of another’s suffering. At the extreme lower end of the scale, they may not even have the capacity to care for themselves. The continuum that describes our capacity to care deepens and then broadens as you extend away from the self. Each of us may draw this diagram a little differently, but it looks something like this:
When we are babies, we are only concerned with ourselves. We scream when we are hungry or uncomfortable. We learn to smile at our caretakers when we feel the loved. If we grow up in a healthy environment and have the right biology, we grow and evolve to care more and more until caring begins to taper off as we get older and our ego takes over. Where and when that happens is different for everyone. While many of us would say that we care deeply about the world and everything in it, our behaviors may betray us. Most of us end up somewhere in the middle with a healthy eye on our own personal maximization formula. We care, but not so much that we are willing to be martyrs. We like our vacations and our nice clothes. We stay focused on putting our kids through college. We grow our own retirement plans. We are somewhat “normal.”
The second type of empathy in this simple model is our capacity to understand ourselves and others and to adjust our behavior in order to influence others. Another term for this might be cognitive empathy or EQ (Emotional Intelligence). It also exists as a broad continuum. At the low end of this scale, we don’t even understand our own emotions, so we have no chance of identifying and adapting to the emotions of others. At the upper end, we may have an innate ability to inspire or manipulate others. Some call this tactical empathy. This continuum deepens and then broadens as you extend away from the self. If I were to draw it, it would look something like this:
Anyone who has raised children can recognize these lower levels. If we grow up in a healthy environment, our parents teach us when we are being unreasonable and we learn how to self-regulate. As we get older, we quickly learn how to influence those around us to get the things we want. But we all slow down our growth of these skills for some reason when we begin to meet our needs. We continue to go through life misreading people, mis-communicating and as a result, we often fail to inspire others.
Here is an interesting observation: When we have high affective empathy (we care for others) and we are able to influence people, we call it inspiration. When we lack affective empathy (we don’t care) and are able to influence people, we call it manipulation.
If you plot out a graph of these two types of empathy, you can place most of the “abnormal” disorders somewhere on this graph pretty quickly. It looks something like this:
It provides a simple tool to help identify where the people around you might be, so that you might improve your communication strategies, your hiring practices and your leadership capabilities.
At the extremes, If you are very low on the emotional empathy scale, and very low on the cognitive empathy scale, you might be classified into one of the various psychopathic categories like Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Schizophrenia.
If you have some self caring and care for others to some degree, but you have little cognitive empathy, we may classify you with one of many social disorders like Autism.
If you have a high cognitive empathy, but little capacity for caring, we label you a sociopath. This means that you have a high ability to manipulate others, but you simply don’t care for them at all. At the extreme, you may be able to manipulate large groups of people or even whole societies. (Think Adolf Hitler, Josef Mengele or Herod the Great)
If you are off the charts for both emotional empathy and cognitive empathy, you have an otherworldly capacity for caring and are so emotionally intelligent that you can inspire troves of people and sometimes entire societies. (Think Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Gandhi or Nelson Mandela.) In that case, we might classify you as a martyr because you give up your own personal wants and desires for others.
Zealots might show up on the right when they are able to use cognitive empathy to influence people to support their specific causes, maybe to an extreme, but at the expense of others.
If you have high affective empathy, but lower cognitive empathy, you might be considered an “empath” or co-dependent. You may live your life broke because all of your money goes to the latest charity that knocked on your door.
In my opinion, none of us is fully “normal”. We all have thoughts or tendencies that others might classify as abnormal. We all have good days and we all have bad days. We all exist in a psychological reality that is not black nor white but wonderfully grey. We all might act like a sociopath in certain scenarios. In many ways, that is what makes our lives so complicated and so interesting at the same time. Most of us live somewhere in the middle of this chart.
For many, there is an upper capability limit to both of these scales and if you are unable to grow beyond that limit, there may be a biological problem that is insurmountable and unfortunate. If you are somewhat “normal,” however, the most beautiful thing about empathy, on both of these scales, is that it can be improved. Once you recognize that it is not “fixed,” it can transform every aspect of your life for the better. We all have more capacity for caring and we all have more capacity for emotional intelligence. Our goal should be to help those around us to grow in both of these dimensions (leadership) and to always be on a path of growing our own empathy.
To sum it up, it is useful to identify where you are and where the people around you are on this chart so that you can grow and you can positively influence the people that you lead. It is also important to identify the sociopaths. They may be brilliant, but they are cold, manipulative culture destroyers that will limit your growth and create unnecessary politics in your organization. If it is your boss, hopefully this will encourage you to find another gig. If it is that client or customer that you just can’t seem to make happy, maybe it’s time to fire that client.
It is as simple as figuring out how much they authentically care about the people around them. The difference between a great leader and a highly successful sociopath is whether or not they care about those they influence.
We all set about to organize and categorize the world to make sense of what we see.
“All models are wrong, some models are useful.” — George E.P. Box
This is my attempt to make sense of leadership and to create a useful tool for all of us to use. This quote sums up how I feel about the source of the ideas:
“Ideas spring from a source that is not contained within one man’s personal life. We do not create them; They create us. To be sure, when we deal in ideas, we inevitably make a confession, for they bring to the light of day not only the best that in us lies, but our worst insufficiencies and personal shortcomings as well. This is especially the case with ideas about psychology.” — Carl Gustav Jung
If you found this model useful. Please clap, recommend my article or share it with your community.
Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman
The Emotions of Normal People by William Moulton Marsten
The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
The Handbook of Self Determination Theory by Ed Deci and Richard Ryan
Why We Do What We Do by Ed Deci
Modern Man in Search of A Soul by Carl Jung
The other authors and books that have influenced my thinking on this are numerous. To name a few:
A Theory of Human Motivation by Abraham Maslow
Maslow on Management by Abraham Maslow
A Theory of Everything by Ken Wilber
The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud
Mastery by George Leonard
Conditioned Reflexes by Ivan Pavlov
Science and Human Behaviour by B. F. Skinner
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
Start With Why by Simon Sinek
Drive by Daniel Pink
And many, many more….