Being sensitive to how others are experiencing their challenges in life is not a topic I came across much in my leadership training or my forums.
So I was more than a little surprised when it came up at a few recent forums as we worked through participants’ issues in business during this, our second lock-down. Being empathetic is traditionally seen as being at odds with what is perceived as strong, decisive leadership, the kind that is focused on facts, figures and measurable results. As a business owner and facilitator who is also focused on outcomes, I can totally understand why many leaders take this approach. I smile as I write this because I am showing empathy for the people who do not display or value empathy.
For me, showing empathy was a sign of vulnerability and weakness. Connecting emotionally with people was an aspect of my personality that I feared I would drown in if I tried to go there. It was better, I believed, to stay with my logical mind on which I had always relied, and which got me through many difficult challenges, but my logical mind informs me that people and society change, and change requires new approaches. That same realisation is happening for the leaders in my peer-to-peer forums.
A business owner at a recent forum described his deep disappointment at the decision of a key employee to leave over how he, the owner, had handled an error of judgement made by the employee.
The businessman describes himself as a practical and positive leader who believes in acting consistently. He told us that the way he handled the grievance was no different to the way he made countless previous decisions. The company paid the best wages in their sector and only hired the best people. Up to now good people leaving had not been a problem. The employee’s decision to leave had really taken the wind out of his sails.
The heart of the matter
It seems the real crux was that the employee had got emotional. The employer confessed he did not like dealing with people who got emotional about issues and he could not understand why the employee felt so strongly about this particular one. Why couldn’t they see things in black and white, like him? Why couldn’t they accept that he was only applying a set of rules to the employee that he had used to run the business successfully?
He expressed a belief that there is a very thin line between being manipulated by a sob story and being fair to the company or other employees. At the same time, he realised that in this case he lost a good employee because he favoured protecting the company.
He felt that the move to being politically correct and following new fads is as dangerous as sticking to your old tried-and-trusted approach. Yet he recognised that society is changing fast as a result of the present disruption and that employees are expecting better treatment.
In short, the incident was causing him to question his approach.
Observing the emotional temperature
His peers in the ‘room’ (we are still doing the forums virtually) understood what it is like to lose a talented employee, so they could empathise with him. The group agreed that from their own recent experiences, heightened by the effects of the lockdown, empathy – or as one participant put it, observing the emotional temperature of the other person – was going to become a more important tool for every leader to develop.
They expressed a view that It would not be good leadership to make decisions on facts and figures only where others felt strongly about an issue.
The business leaders’ guide to empathy
As a result of in-depth and challenging interactions between the group members, the following are some of the insights the participants got from the session as well as their recent experiences of the lock-down:
· How people perceive they are being treated is going to be as important in the future as the financial rewards they are being offered.
· Empathy does not mean feeling sorry for people or giving in to every whim or demand. It can mean just listening to understand the other person’s perspective and having an open discussion wherein they express their needs, and the leader outlines his or her concerns and the needs of the business.
· Leaders need to see employees as fellow human beings rather than a cost to be managed and to have a greater appreciation for what they might be going through.
· It is important to trust that deep down most people know what’s right, yet to be aware there is a minority who are emotional junkies and cannot see beyond their own needs.
· Investing time in creating a supportive culture will reap rewards in higher productivity and reduced people costs like absenteeism and labour turnover.
· Loyalty to staff can hold you back as well as help attract and retain good people.
· The ability to have compassion for another’s pain can be a beautiful thing, but when they are battering you with their frustration you need clear boundaries to prevent you being the victim of their behaviour.
· There is plenty of professional help you can avail of when dealing with difficult people problems.
· Being an empathetic leader means the solution doesn’t have to be ‘either/or’, giving in to the employee or sticking with company policy. It creates opportunities for many other solutions to emerge.
The business owner who had presented his challenge said he felt it was time to develop his ability to empathise, which his peers described as an innate leadership quality he is unaware he has or has not needed in the past. He said that he learned the importance of being very honest about your own needs as well as the needs of the employee and that in most cases these should be congruent.
He finished summing up his learning from the session by quoting Victor Hugo:
‘There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come’.
Do you think the time has come for empathy as a leadership quality?