Will someone please stop the pseudo-caring movement?
Bob Gower and Srini Pillay, M.D.
Caring is fundamental to human society and how we live with our loved ones. And while we are big fans of using our businesses as a means to express authentic care in the world, we’ve noticed a disturbing, predatory trend that we believe is destroying the authenticity of society.
We call this trend “performative care” or pseudo-care. What we mean is demonstrating care for secondary personal gain — a kind of pathological altruism.
The Look: Thought leaders and businesses who practice performative care will frequently talk about “empathy” or “making the world a better place” which are excellent values — when authentic. But they become performative when they are used primarily to garner approval or to sell an idea.
To identify performative caring, listen for an earnestness that is intended to attract people, but actually grates against you. A common sign is someone who has adopted some facet of caring like “empathy” or “empowerment” as part of their core brand identity and presents this with an air of persuasion.
You will hear it on stage, or see it on social media where it often acts as a mask for anger or selfishness. Usually these folks are trying to sell a product or run for office. And often, the call for greater caring is accompanied by other inauthentic self-descriptions like “I just want to get real”, when the person is doing anything but getting real.
The Motivation: The hope of the performative carer is that they’ll be showered with admiration, attention or money. We suspect that underneath is a high-functioning sociopath or narcissist. They often target people who are confused, burned out, depressed, lonely or angry. They will talk endlessly about how much they care about their customer or audience while repeatedly re-centering the conversation on themselves. You will often sense irritability and lies in their platitudes too.
Studies show that “altruism” is often motivated by the social rewards and that empathy, rather than being purely about compassion, is also partly about feeling closer to another group so you can predict their attitudes and behaviors.
In order to appeal to their target audience, these people will often blame leaders or take the side of marginalized groups. You will read many articles about this in business and self-help journals, and you will find them hiding in movements that preach consciousness or social awareness. They often seem to enjoy creating guilt in others.
Beneath the mask of love and caring is a conflict of interest that surprisingly often goes unnoticed. Many performative carers sell products related to caring (e.g.coaching, books, workshops and leadership consulting) — or they are looking for your vote. They may even tell you about the ROI of caring, as if caring is a commodity.
The Downside for the “Cared for”: We humans are often so in need of true caring, that we impulsively buy these products in the hope of getting some relief. Unfortunately, all we actually get is a bunch of baloney, cheap tricks, and before we know it, our bank accounts are dwindling .
Also, good social skills such as empathy do not guarantee that the carer actually understands the point of view of the other. In the brain, these are two separate neural systems. Performative carers are often so engaged in their own social rewards that they ignore the fact that they are infantilizing and disempowering the disenfranchised other.
Guidelines: In order to help you identify a performative carer, we have pulled together a list of criteria that we hope will be helpful:
- Public exhortation to care accompanied by some potential form of secondary gain
- Often accompanied by 2 or more of the following phrases (or similar phrases):
“We need to get real”
“Let’s face it”
“How much longer are we going to take this?”
“Does anyone else feel this way?”
“We need to make these changes”
- Demonstrable financial or social gain from making a statement about caring
- Clear angry and irritable layer under the layer of caring
- Connects care with ROI or business impact
- Repeatedly tries to convince people about why caring is important
If a person meets any of these criteria, you may be witnessing a performative carer. We should note that each of these criteria aren’t necessarily problematic individually — they become so when they are part of a pattern of demonstrating care only when it benefits the carer. We tend to think of being caring like being cool or confident — if you have to say you are, you probably aren’t.
When you think you’ve spotted a performative carer: Hold onto your wallet. Delay your vote. And walk away. You’ll be better off being compassionate to yourself than walking into this trap that will rip your authenticity to shreds and weaken any genuine attempt you make to improve your life.
We invite you to add to these criteria and to please say that the emperor has no clothes the next time you encounter performative caring. Be on high alert the next time someone tries to sell you empathy, inclusion, or a form of justice.
Real caring will always be an added benefit to any person or system, even if it makes the carer feel good. But performative caring is a real threat that we need to identify to stop this viral phenomenon in its tracks.
The Solution: So what do you do if you are steeped in a culture of performative caring and you are up to your ears in shallow empathy and emotional intelligence workshops but still want as positive culture.
We suggest that building authenticity into your culture will go a longer way. It will increase motivation and work ability, and decrease depressivity too. Learn why positive fantasies can actually sap energy. And why mixed, and not just positive feelings can improve overall psychological wellbeing. Together with these and other principles of authenticity, your humanness will likely be restored…as long as the authenticity is not performative either.
Learn more about the Scribblers Inc. program on authenticity by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Bob Gower is the co-founder of Ethical Ventures a consulting firm that helps organizations eliminate waste and align behind coherent and unified strategies so they can do more with less.
Bob has advised senior leaders at many companies — including GE, Ford, Chanel, and Spotify — in creating more effective organizations. He is a recognized authority on agile development, lean theory, and responsive organizational design, and is the author of the books: Agile Business and Getting to Hell Yes. He holds an MBA in Sustainable Management, is a Certified Positive Psychology Practitioner, and is a frequent keynote speaker on leadership and building great organizations.
Srini Pillay, M.D. is the founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, voted one of the Top 20 movers and shakers in leadership development in the world by Training Industry. He has worked with leaders internationally in many Fortune 500 companies, and is currently an invited member of The Consortium for Advanced Adult Learning and Development (CAALD) at McKinsey &Co. and The Tranformational Leadership Council (TLC).
Srini’s background includes being a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, brain researcher, certified master executive coach, technology entrepreneur and musician. He is regarded as a pioneer in the field of transformational neurocoaching and has been extensively featured in the media including CNN, Fox, The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Forbes and Fortune. He is an award-winning author of multiple books and an in-demand keynote speaker. His most recent book is “Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind”.