Danny Gutknecht is an entrepreneur, author, executive coach and thought leader focusing on challenges in the global talent market. His book, Meaning at Work and Its Hidden Language, offers people and companies practical solutions to our 21st century psychological mind when navigating our careers, leadership and organizational life.
He is co-founder and CEO of Pathways, a talent development and strategy firm focused on the intersection of work and meaning. In addition, Danny teaches his highly effective interviewing, leadership and engagement models in seminars at The University of Texas.
On today’s episode of the RecruitingDaily Podcast, William Tincup talks to Danny from Pathways about empathy, more specifically, how everything we know about it is wrong.
Some Conversation Highlights:
Listening time: 23 minutes
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Announcer: 00:00 This is RecruitingDaily’s Recruiting Live Podcast, where we look at the strategies behind the world’s best talent acquisition teams. We talk recruiting, sourcing, and talent acquisition. Each week, we take one overcomplicated topic and break it down so that your three-year-old can understand it. Make sense? Are you ready to take your game to the next level? You’re at the right spot. You’re now entering the mind of a hustler. Here’s your host, William Tincup.
William Tincup: 00:34 Ladies and gentlemen, this is William Tincup, and you are listening to the RecruitingDaily Podcast. Today, we have Danny on, from Pathways, and our topic that we’re going to explore today is, Everything We Know About Empathy is Wrong. This is just going to be fun. Can’t wait to get into it with Danny. Danny and I were just joking. We talked to each other about a decade ago, and we can’t remember who introduced who, but both of us have names that are easily recognizable. Danny, welcome to the show. Would you do us a favor and introduce both yourself and Pathways?
Danny Gutknecht: 01:12 Yeah, well, thanks for having me on the show, William.
William Tincup: 01:14 Sure.
Danny Gutknecht: 01:14 It’s fantastic to reconnect again. I’m Danny Gutknecht. I’m the author of a book named Meaning at Work and Its Hidden Language, which is a lifelong journey into the intersection of meaning and work. I also have a company by the name of Pathways, where we help organizations recruit and train leaders, so all of the above, and just regular people. Everybody’s kind of like… It’s a lead yourself type of training program.
William Tincup: 01:49 I love that. Okay, so let’s start with the book. Why did you decide to write a book, A, and what was your process like? Were you inspired? Were you forced at gunpoint? What was the bit?
Danny Gutknecht: 02:03 Well, my goodness, it was… Yes, I was almost forced at gunpoint, although not quite gunpoint, but I used to write whitepapers, so when I got into recruiting, one of the things that just drove me nuts was bias and I was running a recruiting team in the mid ’90s. Recruiters would get off the telephone, and it would just constantly be this… I would be like, “The candidate can’t just have all of your same goals lined up.”
I started to tinker with psychological tools, tools that I was interested in for my own self-development, but also tools that I was interested in kind of googling out in the marketplace and seeing how they worked in the organization. I would write whitepapers about things that I would uncover and problems that I would kind of get some insight into. Over the years, I kept writing whitepapers, and people would say, “You’ve got to write a book. You’ve got to write a book.”
I have a very good friend out of Austin, Texas, which is Joy Goswami, who said, after I published a paper in 2013 by the name of Chemistry, like what’s the relationship that we have to work and to the businesses that we work in or the brands that we actually interact with? He said, “You’re writing a book, and I’m not taking no for an answer.” It took about four and a half years for me to pen 161 pages because I didn’t want to have one of those books where the first couple of chapters makes the point and then you’re kind of reiterating it, so it took some time.
William Tincup: 03:43 Well, first of all, I’m glad you did it. It’s well worth it. Are you thinking about a second or third book?
Danny Gutknecht: 03:52 Deep in the back of my mind.
William Tincup: 03:54 In the dark recesses in my brain.
Danny Gutknecht: 04:01 Writing a book is not easy. I mean, I’m sure there are easier books to write, but I wrote many chapters and woke up the next day and said, “This is awful.”
William Tincup: 04:12 Right.
Danny Gutknecht: 04:14 And rewrote it. It might be a little ways off before I write anything else.
William Tincup: 04:20 Fair enough. Tell us about the meaning and the intersection of meaning and work. Tell us what we need to know about that intersection point.
Danny Gutknecht: 04:30 Well, it was initially psychology, and a lot of the questions that I was exploring for myself as a human being were, how do you find something that is a lifelong journey that you’re just fascinated with and interested in, and something that kind of just is worth pursuing regardless of the money? What puts your feet on the ground in the morning and wants you to go do it, regardless of where it’s at, too, regardless of the business? I did a lot of self-exploration, but I would also take things that I’d learned in self-exploration and go, gosh, do these work for other people?
When I found myself in the recruiting world, what a wonderful place for this intersection to happen, right? Because you’re talking to people about changing a career or relocating, those types of things, and so, deploying these tools with other people and exploring it gives you a lot of data, a lot of information. Over the 25 years before I wrote the book, I look back now and I’m like, man, I probably amassed, due to recorded interviews and exploration, and I probably amassed the largest trove of data in the history of work and meaning.
What psychology deals with is really human meaning. It’s how we make sense of the world, how we decide to show up in it. It’s a little bit less about the heartfelt kind of emotional discharge that we think, although that’s part of it, but it’s also like, what are you willing to get up and do every day? What are you willing to struggle for? That’s the way I look at meaning.
William Tincup: 06:07 It’s interesting because I asked this question when we were talking about the University of Arizona, pre-call, and one of the questions I asked, because I taught a class on stereotypes, American Indian stereotypes in particular, but the question was about activism. What does it take to get you active? I’d go around the room, 50 kids in a room. I’d basically ask, “If you’re going to march, what is it going to take to get you off the couch? Or if you’re going to write a check, what is it going to take?” What we came to, my classes, it had to touch you. It had to touch your life. If your mom, unfortunately, if she had breast cancer, you got into it. If your dad had prostate cancer, unfortunately, if someone died from a gun injury or something like that, you got active.
It’s like activism was tethered to personal experience, in some ways. Again, I don’t have any great data around that, other than just doing it, just asking students, but it was really interesting because you’re coming to some of the same things. It’s like, okay, well, discretionary effort.
You get an email at five o’clock on a Friday, eh, do you handle it? Do you want to handle it? Do you just want to wait until Monday? I think everyone’s trying to figure that out.
Danny Gutknecht: 07:38 Yeah. You know what? It’s fascinating that you did that research because that’s really at the crux of what it is. I mean, we’re creatures of habit and patterns. When it comes to interpreting the world, we think that we do so real consciously, but most of the time it does take some form of trauma to get us to change a pattern or a habit. The good news is that you don’t have to wait for trauma. You can actually do it, but it takes a little bit of effort. It’s like starting an exercise regime when you’re not in good shape and haven’t exercised for 20 years.
William Tincup: 08:17 That is fantastic. Let’s pivot and talk a little bit about empathy, in the sense of corporate empathy, if we want to start there. What do we get right after… with your research, your book, everything, and just, you’ve been studying this for 30 years. What do we get right about empathy and what do we just get wrong about empathy?
Danny Gutknecht: 08:43 That’s, what’s fascinating. There’s a lot of terms like empathy and let’s… We’ll focus on empathy, but you hear a lot of different terms like empathy, and you get a prescriptive sort of approach that people leave you with. Here’s what empathy is, according to the world, and, by the way, these are the things that you can do to have more empathy. One of the big insights to me was… Well, there were a couple. One is empathy is really a symptom of your system of meaning. Think about it this way. When we start our careers, we’re told what the idea of success is.
I remember, when I was working in Dallas, and I started in the recruiting world, everybody… I went to this nice firm that had the shiny shoes and ties and all of that stuff. I got these shoes, these dress shoes, that were real expensive dress shoes. I won’t disparage the brand, but man, you wear those for 10 years and you don’t realize that your back is off, your legs hurt, and you don’t even realize it’s just the shoes. You just know the shoes aren’t comfortable, right? It’s not until I kicked those shoes off, said that I’m going to explore barefoot; I’m going to explore all sorts of things, and you work all sorts of different muscles. You don’t realize that you’re trying to fit into the world’s definition of what empathy is or meaning is, and you have to actually have the experience and do the work yourself to understand what it is.
I look at it and say, well, why is it a big topic today? And it’s like, well, our organizations have bunions. We have such prescriptive world-defined views of what somebody’s journey is or what empathy is that we forgot that to have empathy in general, you’d better start with yourself. You’d better start exploring and be empathetic to your own journey.
If you think about it from… You hear a lot of the Myers-Briggs and thinking and feeling functions that we have. A lot of times, our thinking and feeling functions are external, and so we’re looking to the world to say, “What should I think? What should I feel?” instead of kind of looking inward and go, “What do I think? What do I feel? My answers are good enough, and I’ve actually got to go on that journey and work those muscles to be able to have an understanding of it.”
William Tincup: 11:21 Well, let me just interrupt real quick, because you’ve triggered something for me that I love. It’s the concept of love, right? To love someone else, you have to love yourself, right? It’s kind of a universal truth. You’ve got to be able to look in the mirror, see yourself for all the warts and all the things that you’ve got there. You’ve got to be able to say, “I love you,” in order to say, “I love you” to someone else. You just kind of run the parallel, a wonderful parallel, of empathy, of saying, “Okay.” You also kind of tether it to a journey, which I love, because it also kind of shows that the journey’s never, it’s never done. It’s not like you get to a certain point, and you’re like, “Okay, empathy. Got it. Check.”
Danny Gutknecht: 12:15 Well, it’s funny that you say that because when I started to re-devise the interview, one of the things that we started to do is record the interviews. I would get my recruiters and myself, I’d do it myself, to start with day one, breath one. Where were you born? Where did you grow up? What interests did you have? We figured, you know what? A lot of people know how to interview to skills and titles and money. That’s all good. But what nobody’s really interviewing to is motives. Why did you do what you did? Why did you take the next role, and what was fascinating about it for you? What were you trying to fulfill within? By recording that, if you go back and listen, now you start to kind of gain an empathy for the human journey in general, right?
You do that 20,000 times and listen to 20,000 journeys even, and your own, and you start to get real empathetic and go, “Hey man, there’s just a whole bunch of people, it doesn’t matter whether they’re in the C-suite or they’re on the front line, that are just trying to figure things out for themselves and really trying to find something that energizes them from the feet up, and wakes them up in the morning, and is worth pursuing. If you think about it, it’s why, when people get towards the end of their life, they reminisce, because they want to think that their life meant something.
William Tincup: 13:37 What have you seen with the last, I’d say, the last unfortunate years, but maybe they’re not unfortunate, in terms of the social causes from Me Too, to Love is Love, to Black Lives Matter, George Floyd getting murdered in front of us, all this gun violence, et cetera. You see these things that are societal issues, if you will, some of them deeply rooted in history. How have you seen that kind of transfer over into the world that you work in, in terms of meaning at work and empathy and how we can look at other people’s journey to better understand ourselves and better understand them?
Danny Gutknecht: 14:20 You know, you’re touching on something really important. You said a couple of things that I think that we’re all dealing with right now. One is we’re historical creatures, and we’re historical further back than just ourselves, right? We’ve been passed down models of behavior, and those behavior models have feelings and all sorts of beliefs and things attached to them. We repeat those without really thinking about them. We don’t really kind of think, hey, what am I really acting out here? Is this me?
What the world’s experiencing today, that businesses are needing to deal with, is a crisis of meaning. If you’re a business or if you’re somebody that is marching or whatever, you’re dealing with a crisis of meaning. This is what the lashing out is. This is what the Me Too Movement is. It’s basically people saying, “Hey, I’m reassessing my values.”
For years, we had these great American values, or even if you’re overseas, you had a different set of values for free, capitalistic countries, and they’ve been evolving. Well, then we get the internet, and we can see that lots of people live lots of different ways, that you can start to choose different life paths, different career paths, and that nobody’s really right. There is no capital T, Truth, for somebody’s journey.
That comes down to, what is meaning? It’s the truth test is just subjectively what’s true for me, right? As long as I’m abiding by the laws, and I can pay my bills and get along well, it’s, in a free society, it’s I get to choose. What people are doing is they have this allure of authority. They want to outsource meaning to some authority figure, whether it be one of the gurus that we see pop up constantly on Twitter, or ideology or something like that, and we get wrapped up in that, instead of actually thinking for ourselves and saying, “No, I’ll interact with this cause, but it’s going to be on my terms, and I’m actually going to… I can actually be in a position to steward it better, or to be more of a value to it.
That’s, what’s also happening in business. With the great resignation, people are just reassessing. Work doesn’t mean the same things, and I’m not going to be told what they mean. We’re unconsciously sorting that out.
William Tincup: 16:52 I love that. What’s, and we’ll make the assumption there is… Is there a relationship between meaning at work and culture at work?
Danny Gutknecht: 17:06 Yeah. Culture, like personality, is a result of your system of meaning. If you think about it, so for a business, if you think about culture, you’re going to have… The best way that I can maybe paint this is, let’s say that you’re working in the finance industry. Well, you’ve got a certain amount of constraints and regulations and things that make that up, but there’s also a type of individual that’s got an interest in that, right? People with similar interests align in that industry, and then more might go towards a company.
Well, within that company, you’ve got this, the group of individuals, and you’ve got this big structure called a company that’s all at work, producing something, doing something for human beings, doing something meaningful. That’s the result that you get, which is culture, which is kind of what anthropologists and people study and look at, is just the result of what those underlying that meaning of architecture is. It’s the same thing internally with me. If my personality, as a result of the things, my system of meanings, so the things that I value and the behaviors and the things that I decide to wake up and do, my personality is going to be representative of a lot of that.
William Tincup: 18:29 It’s interesting that you, as you refer to it, a system of meaning and solving for that, like algebra, solving it for yourself, and then helping and understanding how other people are solving it and looking at empathy through that lens. I love all of that. You also touched on something with the pandemic about how people are reevaluating and also kind of this return to office concept. I wanted to get your take on kind of is that a crisis of leaders that look back at 2019? Because I’ve heard it positioned two ways.
I’ll give you two examples. It’s a crisis in the sense that leaders want to be able to see people work, in order to know that they’re working, so it’s kind of an extension of the old command and control manufacturing environment, World War II, this idea that usually white men that want to be able to see people work in order to know that they’re working, and to somehow 2019. It was glorious, and so we should go right back to that. Okay, so there’s that one. That’s one line of thought.
Another line of thought is that this is where soft skills are born, is true mentoring, true collaboration, true creativity actually happens when you’re together. Now, some of it can and does happen virtually, but not really. I’ve heard it positioned both ways, and it’s kind of interesting. What’s your take on this, what we learned from the pandemic? Two questions: What’d we learn from the pandemic, as it relates to meaning and a system of meaning for ourselves? Also, what do you think about this return to the office, or return to work, circa ’19, 2019, et cetera?
Danny Gutknecht: 20:27 Prior to the pandemic, or what the pandemic did, in my view, is it caused an interrupt that was already evolving in the workforce, which was this discontented approach to work, this reevaluation of work values. What is work to me? How do I fit it into a life, instead of how does my life fit into work? Those were already conversations that the population was having with itself. The issue became was it was accelerated, right? I think McKenzie and company said digital adaptation advanced 10 years in six months.
It’s a good example of the fact that we are patterned individuals, right? We’re just, we’re working through, and we didn’t see what was possible in a work environment prior to the pandemic. Now, post pandemic, obviously there were a lot of environments that were so painful to show up in, and also a lot of people in the workforce that hadn’t done their own internal work to know what they wanted in life, that they decided, ooh, I’m never going back there. It’s just, can’t do it, bad managers, or I’m not in sync with my journey, whatever that is. And so you get this rejection of it.
There’s no substitute for getting together. There’s no substitute for that sort of collaboration that we get when we’re working hard on ideas together. However, we realize, I think, the entire work industry realizes that, back to the shoe example, we were walking in shoes that don’t fit or that we try to fit everybody in, and they’re painful, and we need to have more conversations. I think what’s, to me, a good crisis and an accelerated crisis. You’ve got people that fight it all the way, and then you’ve got a whole bunch of people that say, “Let’s use this and see what we can learn from it. Let’s see how we can reroute our energy instead of complaining about it. Let’s go do something positive.” I don’t know what’s going to come out of it. Obviously, I don’t think anybody does, but I think what we can do is start a different conversation about, what do we want work to be, and how can we make it better?
William Tincup: 23:05 Drops mic, walks off stage. Danny, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom. This has been absolutely wonderful. I appreciate you.
Danny Gutknecht: 23:15 I appreciated being on the show. I enjoyed it, William. It was nice talking to you again.
William Tincup: 23:19 Absolutely.
Danny Gutknecht: 23:20 Let’s not wait. Let’s not wait so long next time.
William Tincup: 23:23 I know. I know. Thanks for everyone listening to RecruitingDaily Podcast. Until next time…
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William is the President & Editor-at-Large of RecruitingDaily. At the intersection of HR and technology, he’s a writer, speaker, advisor, consultant, investor, storyteller & teacher. He's been writing about HR and Recruiting related issues for longer than he cares to disclose. William serves on the Board of Advisors / Board of Directors for 20+ HR technology startups. William is a graduate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a BA in Art History. He also earned an MA in American Indian Studies from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Case Western Reserve University.