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Avoiding the compassion trap


I read a curious article about retiring PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi. The article’s author lamented the fact that, to do the job well, Nooyi worked 20-hour days and “had to give up everything she loved”. The author suggested this lack of work-life balance was a sad state of affairs and that society needed to change.

I had two reactions to this. On the one hand, sure, compassion is fine, and sure it might be nice if life had fewer hardships. On the other hand, Nooyi was making well over $25 million a year and must have known what was expected in return. A CEO should accept the tradeoffs and learn to adapt—or else not take the job. To Nooyi’s credit, that’s what I believe she did.

It’s probably not often that the CEO of a Fortune 100 company will come to your office complaining that the world should change; however you might well run into young employees upset with their shift schedule and arguing that the company should know how stressful it is and change the system. How should you respond to this?

As is usually the case in HR, we need to be able to believe two contradictory things at once. Of course, we should show some compassion, and if it’s true the company has poor shift scheduling we should encourage them to improve it. However, our compassionate belief that the world should change needs to be put on the backburner in favour of believing that young employees should take personal responsibility for adapting to the world as it is. There are for two powerful reasons for putting the compassionate instinct on the backburner. One reason is that there are quite likely to be good reasons why the schedules are set the way they are, and that youthful proposals to change it are probably ill-informed. The second, and even better, reason, is that a young employee is unlikely to be successful in changing the company whereas they have a much better chance of changing their personal circumstances. First do what you can do, only then start asking others to change.

Specially you could advise them to ask their manager what they could do to improve their schedule; they could arrange their lives to cope better with the schedule; or they could look for a different job. In all cases the onus is on them to make things better. This may seem to lack compassion, but young people who expect the world to change for them will be less happy and less successful than ones who focus on their own ability to cope with the world as it really is.

Is expecting the world to change for them an iGen thing?

The generation born after 1995 is best known as “the iGen” since data suggests their lives have been immensely impacted by the iPhone (see the book “iGen” by Jean Twenge). Are the iGen particularly susceptible to the notion that “society should do something” rather than “I should do something”? Perhaps. The iGen may be particularly vulnerable because they’ve grown up far more protected than previous generations. They come from universities with trigger warnings and safe spaces. They may well expect that organizations should be a safe space too—and if they expect that then they won’t do well in the real world.

It’s not the case that life in organizations is routinely brutal, but at times it will be a jungle; and if you have not been taught how to look after yourself then you’ll suffer needlessly. We need to withhold some of the tendency to simply agree with young people that the world ought to change, instead we need to tell them that they need to learn to adapt and overcome.

What you should do, what they should do

What the iGen should do is prepare themselves for the reality of the world and focus on what they can do rather than lamenting that the world should be different. They’d do well to read---in fact, not just read, but really study—Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Power: Why some people have it and others don’t. Pfeffer is much misunderstood; he’s not suggesting you should be a manipulative power-hungry employee, he’s suggesting you should have a realistic understanding of how organization’s work so that naivety doesn’t ruin your career.

Another good book, from ages ago, is Robert Ringer’s entertaining Winning Through Intimidation. The title might be off-putting, but Ringer’s book isn’t about crushing the innocent, it’s about protecting yourself from the lions and snakes who will happily have you for dinner if you presume the business world is a safe space.

HR professionals should help young people toughen up, learn to cope, and thrive in adversity through self-reliance.


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