Transparency + Empathy = Vulnerability squared? or T≠E?

I once worked for a very talented entrepreneur who wore his heart on his sleeve. To the extent that he would bring his frustration, pain, and joy in equal measures to the office. It was great, I thought, that he was comfortable enough to be so open — so transparent about his emotions and fears. Clearly, and happily, the environment was safe enough for that. And that’s wonderful. To be able to be that authentic, trusting.

From my perspective, however, it wasn’t always comfortable. Or fair. (Did it need to be?) I didn’t own the company, I didn’t have either the pressure or the rewards (the business was quite successful) but I did have a stake — an emotional and financial stake; the gig was paying the bills, and I really enjoyed the work.

The transparency became a source of incredible stress for my colleagues and myself. Never knowing what ‘mood’ was going to walk in in the morning — was the sky falling? Or was sun shining just for us?

We balanced our frustration with empathy for the man. We were in transition; the investment and payoff cycle was unclear. But the work was purposeful, we all knew our part, and felt positive.

What we didn’t feel though, was empathy FROM the man. There was no balance between the transparency and sense of empathy. Had he no idea of how hard it was to hear his pain? And from a selfish place, when threats were made that he was going to ‘throw it all in’ or ‘shut it down’ how it made us feel? I don’t know, maybe he thought it would be easy enough for us to find other work. Or that he was so in his own head, held his responsibility so completely that it never occurred to him how we might feel or be impacted.

That’s not to say we were passive in all this — we tried to support, challenge, offer help. But he was too much in his own head. Not able to share the burden. Not able to really ask for help or be willing to co-create an alternative. And to be fair, it was his business, but what was being expressed with neither vulnerability nor empathy. I think he craved sympathy. But it’s not the same thing.

We wanted to help. Ironically, the transparency shut us out.