Mercy Projects: Don’t Give Bread to Someone Who is Thirsty

This blog is about mercy projects. And why they are not such a good idea.
Today, I met someone on the train who’s life had changed drastically earlier this year. He had a promising career ahead of him. Many people saw him  as the coming man. Life had been so good for him. Until suddenly his life changed. The project got cancelled and for some reason people avoided him like if he had the plague. It was unfair.
Then someone called him on the train. He was drinking a beer, which was not his habit. He answered. The female voice on the phone enquired about his situation. He said he was feeling OK. His face said otherwise. Then she said she had a project for him. Asked if he had interest. The project was way below his former responsibilities. It was a mercy project. Someone felt pity and wanted to save him. He declined. I won’t hide, he said, but you will not see me that often at headquarters anymore.
A mercy project is a project you give to people who experienced bad fortune. You feel sorry for them and you feel the need to save them  from whatever disaster that is hanging over their head.
But here’s the thing. Many people don’t want to be saved. When people experienced injustice, they want justice, redemption, reparation, restitution. They don’t want to go into the world with a surrogate mission, a distant reflection of what could have been. If you try to save them, you show a lot of kindness, but a lack of empathy.
Acts of mercy may seem the right thing to do.  But they are most often not.

Don’t give bread to someone who is thirsty.

If you do, there will be a backlash. Mercy projects do no solve anything. They cover up.
What do we learn from that situation? It tells us how difficult compassion in a professional context is. A leader has to able to show kindness. But kindness is not the same as being merciful. Sometimes you are kind by not showing mercy. Mercy can feel like a judgement and in many ways it is. So let’s avoid them.
But, leaders can learn how to use their character as basis of their leadership, without being perceived as soft or weak.
The English version of my book on Sustainable Leadership will be published in the coming weeks. In that book I discuss the way someone can make leadership more sustainable in a VUCA world. For the moment you can find the version in Dutch here and the version in french here.

Empathy at Work – an Example from the Olympics.

An emotional French Fencing Athlete

Sustainable leadership is based on character. Empathy is an important element of that character. It helps people to be successful and to be kind. Here’s an embarrassing example of what happens when there is no empathy at work. An insensitive French reporter wants to interview Lauren Rembi, a French fencer after her defeat in the 2016 Olympic games. Look what is happening:

(Lack of) Empathy at Work

The reporter has no eye for the emotional state of the woman. She is just crying. And he goes on and on and on. He’s very rude and rubs it in. She gave so many cues that she did not want this interview. Early on she withdraws but he holds her arm to keep her in front of the camera. It’s among the worst journalistic feats I have seen.
One could say the man is just doing his job. But doing your job does not exclude being human and being kind. This sports woman needed consolation, not an interview. .
Empathy is what makes us human. We should not shut it off when we go to work. On the contrary. We should base our work on our human characteristics: empathy, fairness, reciprocity and kindness.

What could he have done?

So what could he have done better? He could have turned off the cameras and have a kind conversation with her. Or he could have just let her go. Or he could have asked if she needed a bit of time before giving the interview. Or he could have changed the interview into a kind conversation. He could have shown empathy by saying he understands how she must feel. Or he could have given some words of consolation. On several occasions he tells the athlete that she has done well, but is does not sound very warm. He could have asked for just one reaction and then let her go. There are many things he could have done.
Empathy at work is important. This was an example of the lack of it and how that affects the performance of the journalist. There is no way that he can say he did well. Nobody watching this interview will have appreciated this.

It's not about the Ice Cream. It's about Empathy.

Personal admiration and frustration are the main drivers for this blog.
Admiration because I deeply respect and admire people capable of being truly and spontaneously empathic. Frustration because I find that it still takes too much effort for myself to be that way…
It’s often in simple things. A few years ago in summertime I visited the Antwerp ZOO (Belgium) with my wife and my now 5 and a half years old son. We bought my son an ice cream and it took him only a few minutes to drop it on the ground… Tears, lots of tears.
My first reflex was: “No problem, that was not on purpose, those things happen, we’ll buy a new one”.
His first reflex did not seem to be one of happiness as he continued pointing at the spot on the ground that used to be his ice cream. And started crying even harder.
That’s when my wife took over. She seemed to:

  • understand that he fist needed to go though a “grieving” process about his old cream, before being able to accept a new one.
  • succeed in going together with him, as if she were in his shoes, through that process
  • succeed, last but not least, in calming him down and let him return to “reason”

Don’t ask me how she did it, but she did. My part of the game was to provide a new ice cream, also known as the solution for the problem. He gladly accepted and even said thank you (which made my day). Now I would be glad to learn something about what empathy is and how to develop it.


I see empathy as the ability to see things from the other person’s point of view — to be able to “walk in someone else’s shoes“.. When I google for definitions, this is also what I mostly get as result)
You don’t only need it towards 5 year old kids. You also need it in the professional world. Of course managers and leaders must keep the focus and guide people to goal completion, but focus alone can result in undesirable consequences if not counter-balanced by empathy. Focus alone will not result in the fulfillment of goals. Focus and empathy will.
According to Daniel Goleman empathy represents the foundation skill for all the social competencies important for work:

  • Understanding others: Sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.
  • Service orientation: Anticipating, recognizing and meeting customers’ needs
  • Developing others: Sensing others’ development needs and bolstering their abilities
  • Leveraging diversity: Cultivating opportunities through diverse people
  • Political awareness: Reading the political and social currents in an organization

When empathic skills are high, one is more likely to inspire the troops. When a manager understands his/her people and communicates that to them, he/she is more liked and respected. That is how practicing empathy results in better performance. When a manager is respected, the people they lead are more likely to go the extra mile. Empathy and focus need to be balanced, and when they are, managing skills are optimally effective.

Developing Empathy

How can you learn to be effectively empathic, if you are one of those task-oriented managers who is primarily focused on achievement and solutions?
The good news is that your achievement orientation and focusing abilities will help you in acquiring empathy skills. The bad news is that it may not be natural at first. Fortunately, empathy is a learned capability and like other competencies, it can be acquired. If given enough time and support, leaders can develop and enhance their empathy skills through coaching, training, or developmental opportunities and initiatives.
According to a recent white paper by William A. Gentry, Weber and Sadri, organizations can encourage a more empathic work place and help managers improve their empathy skills in a number of simple ways:

  • Talk about empathy.

    Let managers know that empathy matters. Though task-oriented skills like monitoring, planning, controlling and commanding performance or “making the numbers” are important, understanding, caring, and developing others is just as important, if not more important, particularly in today’s workforce. Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn, enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.

    I like this suggestion of the authors. I believe and observe empathy is not enough embedded yet in many company’s cultures, in the way people work together. It’s still too much a skill that is talked about in trainings and workshops, and when you ask for how intensively it’s being applied in daily life, people are hesitating to talk about it, or become very quiet… Talking about empathy, or should we say daring to talk about it, may effect in its becoming more and more part of the normal way of working together.

  • Teach listening skills.

    To understand others and sense what they are feeling, managers must be good listeners. Skilled listeners let others know that they are being heard, and they express understanding of concerns and problems. When a manager is a good listener, people feel respected and trust can grow.

    I believe active listening is an absolute key condition for making turn into a success whatever we are trying to work on with other people. So certainly when empathy is necessary to enable collaboration, it cannot be recommended enough.

  • Encourage genuine perspective-taking.

    Managers consistently should put themselves in the other person’s place. As Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird famously said: “You can never understand someone unless you understand their point-of-view, climb in that person’s skin or stand and walk in that person’s shoes.” For managers, this includes taking into account the personal experience or perspective of their employees. It also can be applied to solving problems, managing conflicting, or driving innovation.

  • Cultivate compassion.

    Support managers who care about how someone else feels or consider the affects that business decisions have on employees, customers and communities. Go beyond the standard-issue values statement and allow time for compassionate reflection and response.

    I also like this one very much, because if we want people to talk about empathy and about how important it is, and if we want them to effectively integrate it in their daily lifes, top leadership needs to support, sponsor and cultivate compassion as a valuable attitude.

  • Support global managers.

    Working across cultures requires managers to understand people who have very different perspectives and experiences. Empathy generates an interest in and appreciation for others, paving the way to more productive working relationships.
    When managers increase their awareness and understanding of empathy (particularly in their cultural context) they can identify behaviors they can improve and situations where showing their empathy could make a difference.
    As managers hone their empathy skills through listening, perspective-taking, and compassion, they are improving their leadership effectiveness and increasing the chances of success in the job.

The ice cream

Returning to my son and his ice cream, I think I could have helped myself if I would have applied “listening” and “compassion”.
But then again, the temptation to skip these time and energy consuming steps is so huge when the solution is so clear and close… I will probably not be able to listen and be compassionate every time an ice cream case occurs.
I guess my ambition should be somewhere in the middle: do an effort to enter in his world, with the new ice cream not yet in my hands or head, but with the money to buy him already in my heart…


This blog is about kindness. Not kindness in general, but kindness in organizations. You might ask yourself if we really need to talk about that. You might qualify the topic as being too soft, sentimental and not business appropriate. You might think it’s a moralizing and patronizing topic, pedantic even.

Zadkine – The Poet (Knokke)

The base-line of this blog is not at all sentimental. We need to integrate human characteristics like kindness into organizational culture. We need to make companies into habitats in which people are able and willing to engage and perform. Companies should be aware that psychological and social capital is the main leverage of corporate success and sustainability. Not taking into consideration the human traits and psychological processes that define engagement, innovation, adherence, … is a strategic weakness. And kindness is an essential part of human behavior.
We all know successful companies that are treating their people like cattle. Recent reports about companies like GLS, Amazon, Zalando, Zara, Foxconn, …  show that the topic is relevant. Those companies might even excel for some time thanks to a dehumanizing approach. But we know from research that companies that do good, perform better in the long run. Even though this research is not all that conclusive, humanizing corporate practices contributes to overall company performance. By the way, a CEO is usually interested in humanizing the company because he or she is a decent person.
Kindness is also not about obeying the law. It’s about being human.
Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor explain how human kindness has been exiled and reserved for the caring behavior of mothers. There is also growing literature on the emergent organizational capability of compassion.
 As organizations are human constructions  they should embrace human behaviour. Like acts of kindness.
There is only one reason that I can see why kindness has been ousted from corporate life. These behaviors may stand in the way of swift economic progress and efficiency. Companies are often built on competitive behaviors and these are often contradictory to helping behavior.
Helping another might lead to a relative weakness. Not helping another might lead to a relative strength. And this behavior starts in school. Companies have designed systems of performance management and variable pay, that stimulate competitive behaviors. Those systems discourage behaviors of kindness. So we might need to look again at those processes and systems.
 Every company needs to look at how it can integrate behaviors of kindness into its own culture. By doing so, a great company environment can be created. Kindness in itself is not contradictory to achievement. Both can go hand in hand.
Some info
Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C, Maitlis, S., Kanov, J. M., Dutton, J. E., & Frost, P. 2008. The contours and consequences of compassion at work.
 Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29: 193-218
Morten T. Hansen, Herminia Ibarra, and Urs Peyer (2013).
Can Companies Both Do Well and Do Good?
Harvard Business review Blog Network.
Phillips, A. & Taylor, B. (2009). On Kindness. London, Penguin Books
Originally Posted on 13/03/2013 in Human Interest Magazine