The Empathetic Ice Queen?

In my career over the last 20 years, I have been described as both an “Ice Queen” and a “Highly Empathetic Leader.”   How is it possible that one person can be viewed at such opposite ends of the empathy pole?  To be fair, the ice queen comment came from my much earlier days as a manager, when, perhaps, I was still a little green and finding my way as a leader.  Maybe, just maybe, as a woman in her 20’s trying to lead a group which encompassed a wide range of people from many different age groups, I was clumsily attempting to establish my authority?? Hmm, maybe.

But the real point here is – I was and am the same person when I was judged with those very differing opinions.  How I was perceived was greatly influenced, not only by how I projected myself, but by how other people channeled their own internal prejudices and experiences to make an opinion about me.   Interestingly enough, upon coming back to work after having my first child when I was 27, there was a viewpoint that I had softened and was more “human.”  Had I really changed that much, or had others’ opinions changed because they now saw me as a mother?  Maybe it was a little of both.

At that time in my career, I was also fortunate enough to have a great boss who was able to be both direct and empathetic at the same time.  In one of my performance reviews with him, he told me that the he and the rest of the management team were extremely pleased with the work that I was doing and the progress we were making as a department.  Our conversation ended, however, with some gentle guidance based on some reactions that he had gotten on my 360° feedback.  He told me that there were some perceptions that I was cold and unfeeling towards people who reported to me.  He went on to say that he did not personally perceive me that way, but that the feedback came from more than just one or two disgruntled people, so he felt I should know.

At first my feelings were hurt.  That’s not who I was.  How dare they say that?  But, then, I realized that it was completely up to me how I decided to deal with that information.  So, after some deep reflection and discussion with those closest to me, I made the decision to try and be more willing to show my human side.  I also recognized that I did not need to be seen as perfect in anyone’s eyes.  In fact, after many years of practicing (I didn’t simply change overnight), I finally came to comprehend that, in being “more human” and more vulnerable, I connected so much better with people, and, they responded positively.

The same is true in cultural differences.  Different cultures have always fascinated me.  The psychology of different cultures and how people perceive each other is a bit of an obsession.  I have traveled to, spent extended periods of time in, and did business with people from some fascinating corners of the world.  I’d like to say that I’ve garnered new perspectives and an appreciation for different viewpoints, while making a few new friends along the way.

I’ve noticed, however, that as a US citizen abroad, I tend to get a variety of reactions and points of view from our fellow members of the globe.  Some good, some not so good.  But, most are filtered through their perceptions of what an “American” is like, or how they view what the US government is doing in different parts of the world.  And, of course, my viewpoint on people from different countries, cultures and politics is also developed through my own personal lens and experiences.

Politics aside, what is interesting to me is the number of comments that I receive that represent very opposing viewpoints of US people and its culture.  On more than one occasion, I’ve been told that Americans are one of the most generous people in the world.  In fact, just recently, a friend from southeast Asia posted this on my FaceBook page:

“Generosity seems to be embedded in the American DNA. Check this out: http://www.fastcoexist.com/1682417/alex-boguskys-unlikely-journey-from-ad-man-to-social-entrepreneurship-booster”  

I especially appreciated the post given the connection with social entrepreneurship which, as you may know, is a bit of a passion for me as of late.  And, I do believe that there is a large piece of American culture that is truly wanting to do for others, make the world a better place, etc.  But there is also the subset of American culture that worships wealth and power and status and “making it to the top” at all costs.  Remember the blatant greed and dishonesty of companies like Enron, Worldcom and others in the first decade of this century alone?

So, like all cultures, we are shaped, but not easily defined by it.  Each individual is just that.  An individual.  And, if each of us can make more of an effort to understand the other INDIVIDUAL first, and approach each other with our own humanness and vulnerability, this world would be a much better place to live.

But, that’s just one empathetic ice queen’s opinion.

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