Learning at Work: Foundations of Empathy

What my first job taught me about the importance of empathy

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Care worker hugs elderly patient
Photo by Vitor Koshimoto from Pexels

“Dad, I got the job!” 

As my 15-year-old recently started her first job, she began inquiring about my first professional experiences. I’m sure most people never forget their first job, and I’m no exception. I worked for an assisted-living home in the early 1990s, serving dinner (and occasionally lunch) to about 50 men and women of the Greatest Generation. I’ll never forget them, and I most certainly will always remember what they taught me, especially about empathy.

My supervisor, Dahlia, was an amazing mother of 3 from Peru. She worked full time at the facility and was a great teacher. One evening, after our dinner service was concluded and cleaned up, she said, “John, I need to gather things from the residents’ rooms. Why don’t you come with me?”

So, she grabbed one of our carts, and off we went. Room by room, we knocked on the doors to let the residents know we were there to gather plates and silverware from the meals. The residents always gratefully allowed us to enter, and we usually left with loads of dishes. On multiple occasions, we would discover empty creamer containers, sugar cube holders, glasses, tin foil, metal dishes, dozens of cloth napkins, salt and pepper shakers, and even some large metal serving trays. After gathering the items, returning to the kitchen, and loading the dishes into the dishwasher, I posed a question to Dahlia I was dying to ask, ‘Why are the residents hoarding all these relatively worthless items?’

She shared with me that, as it has been explained to her, most of the residents grew up during the Great Depression. In those times, anything shiny was perceived as valuable. Tinfoil, salt and pepper shakers, metal serving dishes, glassware, and the like, were all things that could be traded and bartered for items that were needed, such as food. My mind was blown. I was a 15-year-old boy who had never wanted for food before. At the time, I had no frame of reference and couldn’t relate. To help me further connect, Dahlia shared her own experience of growing up in an impoverished area. It was common for her friends, neighbors, and even her own family, to steal to put bread on the table.

I wish I could tell my 15-year-old self to ask more questions. Little did I know that I was tapping into something more critical than youthful curiosity. I was channeling my capacity to share the feelings of another. Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” I am reminded of a famous tale by Victor Hugo called Les Miserables. Jean ValJean serves years in prison as recompense for his high crime of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone theft, yet I recognize my own bias. I have never experienced food insecurity or worried about where my children’s next meal would come from, and my heart hurts for those who do.

I have spent most of my career as a people leader. I’ve learned a lot about my teammates’ successes, coupled with their heartfelt struggles. Divorce, abuse, single parenthood, a shattered roof, car troubles, and balancing being a good family member. I reminisce about the times we joyfully pressed pause on the workday to celebrate new marriages or babies. I remember the missed opportunities to press pause and offer support during times of uncertainty or loss. 

I can relate to the feelings of embarrassment or guilt when contacting my boss to say, “I need to miss today because of [insert-perceived-excuse-here].” As a leader, I know firsthand how difficult it is to strike the right balance between the needs of the companies we work in, and the need to be empathetic to the trials our teammates face.

True leadership has its roots firmly planted in empathy. And the human experience is a long road, paved with potholes and speed bumps that can teach us to put our feet in another’s shoes, and learn from the feelings and perspectives of others. I can trace my first understanding and recollection of another’s struggles back to Dahlia and that invaluable lesson learned as a young man. As I watch my 15-year-old embark on the beginning of her professional journey, I hope she remembers when she asked me about my first job. We have the potential to be the sum of more than just ourselves. I have found that experiences shared by others have made me a better leader, and a more empathetic human.

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