Monday, August 17, 2015

Tune Out to Tune In: Desensitization of Leaders

image credit: Consumer Reports. Vintage Photo Gallery [online photo archive] (1960). Retrieved from

Earthquakes, floods, homelessness, diseases, murders - we are all bombarded with the stories & images of these travesties every day. With the advent of the internet and social media always at our fingertips, it would be easy to lull ourselves into thinking we are connected and empathetic as a society at large. It would seem, however, that we are wrong.

Several months ago, there was a horrific accident on I-75, just south of Chattanooga, TN. A semi-truck plowed into eight other vehicles at a point where traffic had stopped for construction. In all, six people died, including 2 children. For weeks, media coverage of the investigation was constant. In particular, there was one instance that struck me as profoundly telling. An image of a mangled car was uploaded by a local news station to their Facebook page. It was difficult to see, even as an outside observer. A commenter replied to the image, stating, perhaps, it was inappropriate to post such a graphic image of a car in which two children had died, given there were so many grieving individuals and the losses were still so raw. Almost immediately, there was a backlash of vitriol aimed at the commenter. It was free speech. The public has a right to know. The commenter's integrity and humanity were attacked, at a very personal level, by people who felt empowered through the anonymity of the internet to launch faceless attacks.

Two things struck me from this exchange:
  1. What, really, do we have a right to as a public? The photo was uploaded in a stand-alone fashion, not used to supplement an article or update. Was there value in the image, or was it simply journalistic sensationalism?
  2. Have we become desensitized, as a whole, to tragedy? Perhaps our constant connectivity to social media has had a paradoxical effect on our ability to genuinely connect with others. At times of loss, disaster, and struggle, our sense of empathy has been reduced to a "like" or an emoji. Can the depth of pain and reciprocal sympathy truly be conveyed in 140 characters?
Don't misunderstand. I'm not saying media is inherently evil. I'm fairly certain we had that debate many times throughout the 1990's. We're probably no closer to an answer now than we were then.

My point is this - if another person's pain, heartache, victory, joy, or any other sundry emotion no longer tugs a chord in the part of our souls where our humanity resides, perhaps it's time to take a hiatus from our statuses, updates, tweets, hashtags, and likes. Maybe, just maybe, we are slowly losing the ability to look one another in the eyes and empathize with where they are in their journeys. Maybe we're losing the desire to connect. It requires a vulnerability we have come to abhor, and, all the while, we embrace an anonymous internet-induced bravado behind which we hide to throw barbs, judgments, and self-righteous condemnations. It insidiously affects every aspect of our lives, given enough time and space, including our work. Especially our work.

Desensitized leaders are dangerous.

They're dangerous to their teams; they're dangerous to their organizations; they're dangerous to their communities, and they're dangerous to themselves.

In the past couple of months, I have approached members of my team who are struggling, because I strive to connect with my team in meaningful ways. Through the course of conversations, I came to find out some things which broke my heart and humbled me. My team is fighting through deaths, illnesses, divorces, new parent sleep deprivation, & former homelessness (It's far more prevalent than we'd like to believe. I have begun to wonder how many people we walk past every day who are sleeping in their cars.).

Maslow theorized a long time ago, and I buy into this whole-heartedly, that people who are afraid, hungry, hurting, and dejected will struggle to be successful. How can I expect my team to succeed if they're in survival mode? I will always hold a high bar for success. I will always motivate my team to do better, reach farther.

But I have to do my part. I have to care. And so do you. We're all in this together. So, when we feel ourselves slipping into disconnected automaticity, there are two simple things we can do:
  1. Tune Out. Turn it all off - the television, the phone, the tablet, the radio. Cut out all the static. Disconnect from the "out there".
  2. Tune In. Have a conversation. Look someone in the eye. Leave a handwritten note. Pray for someone else. Smile at a stranger. Give someone a hug. Listen, listen, listen - really listen - to someone who just needs to get it all out. Reconnect to the "right now".
The internet will be there tomorrow.