Originally published as How To Lead With Empathy
May 4, 2017 by About Leaders
By Jon Isaacson
In all of the various words expended on business, entrepreneurship, and leadership, there are few that discuss the role of empathy as a key to the development of emotional intelligence.
Feelings are a component of life. But they are often treated as though they have no place in a professional organization and are of no concern for the successful leader. The truth is that most people in leadership positions make decisions based on feelings, whether they are willing to admit that or not.
A recent study entitled Only Human conducted by Gyro surveyed 720 senior business executives and noted that, “A majority (61%) of executives agree that when making decisions, human insights must precede hard analytics.” Life is theater, business is full of drama, and people are sensitive.
So how do modern leaders elevate their emotional intelligence to address these realities in an organizational environment, especially if they are working to flatten out the organizational chart? Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is what separates emotionally intelligent leaders from managerial programmed robots who are following a passionless script.
Consideration and Engagement
Consider the engagement equity in the ability to understand what someone is feeling, to comprehend the perspective of another human and engage with them, whether you agree or disagree with their conclusions. Consideration for others’ feelings, compassion for their trials as humans, and caring when addressing sensitive issues at work are essential soft skills that can elevate a leader to inspire others to buy-in to the organizational vision. We know in principle that empathy is a form of understanding. So we should understand what empathy is as well as what it isn’t.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is listening to others, attempting to see things from their perspective, and making leadership decisions based upon a fuller engagement with team members who can help in accomplishing the mission. Empathy is a skill that must be developed as an essential component in the tool belt of emotional intelligence. This can assist a leader to more successfully work through periods of resistance while working with other individuals.
Empathy is not capitulation. Listening and understanding does not mean that a leader changes course simply because there are individual(s) who respond negatively to directions and changes within the organization. Empathy is not appeasement. Acquiring perspective does not mean that a leader will seek the path of least resistance by sacrificing long-term success for short-term peace acquired by cowering to demands.
Employees, co-workers and business partners come in all emotional shapes, sizes and shades of complexity. Developing leadership soft skills and emotional intelligence is a process that requires consistent intentionality, which often includes making a fair share of mistakes.
The beautiful side to humanizing the organizational process is that where empathy is practiced and modeled by leadership, it is more likely to be reflected in the interactions throughout the team. When leaders listen, empathize, and demonstrate a hunger to ever improve themselves, they tend to attract team members with the same values who will assist them to build an organization of vision.
As noted, empathy does not make a leader a door mat whom capitulates to negative forces. Conflict resolution by temporary appeasement in the face of resistance is the opposite of emotional intelligence.
Leaders who listen so that they can understand their teams will unlock the resources that may be hiding within their organization that would otherwise remain hidden under the misguided actions of cut and paste management principles.
Step out of your comfort zone, make some smart mistakes, build a thriving team and be the leader that your team deserves. If you are resistant to change as well as growing as a leader, you will continue to attract and manage the team that you deserve.
Creating a good working environment is not an easy task but it should be the goal for any company that wants to remain competitive in the current market where finding good people is often more difficult than finding good customers. When we reached out to multiple leaders across various industries, we found one ingredient that is key to developing a team that operates in the positive margins of employee engagement is the simple art of listening.
Danny Morgan, who is a store manager for a national retailer in Eugene, Oregon, shared, “I can tell you it’s not about the money no matter what they say, we all work for the money but it’s not about the money – ain’t about the fetti.” So it if isn’t about the money, what can leaders do to ensure they are communicating to their employees that they are invested in them as people? Mr. Morgan told us, “Every moment to listen, every second of praise and every time letting them know that they can come to you with anything knowing that you will provide a positive spin or reaction.” Listening to team members shows them that they are worth our time and that we care to hear what they have to say. Employees may not always come to you when it’s convenient, but it is important to remember to make time for them as what they share may not seem important but it could be critical to them.
Fire fighters know a thing or two about building a team. Team work is important to all professions, but it is critical when a group must band together to respond to life and death scenarios. Coy Morris, who fights fires with his team near Seattle, Washington, notes that, “Finding the common goal(s) amongst you and your team. Which in and of itself demands open and safe conversation.” Who initiates the process of establishing common goals and building a culture of open communication? For Mr. Morris, “I think the organization sets the mission, the team balances objectives with reality, but I think it starts with management.” Even though fire-fighting is dangerous, this alone is not enough to forge individuals into a strong team as there are plenty of dysfunctional teams that work in high pressure situations. Many of these teams are able to pull it together when necessary but how much more positive would the environment be if they were able to function cohesively? Danny Morgan reminds us that building respect goes both ways, from leaders to and from employees, “One important thing [to remember] is it takes time, one day at a time.”
Tom Los who leads a team for a local government entity in Moses Lake, Washington notes that listening can bring engagement as well as new opportunities for the organization, “I listen to my staff and then give them projects and tasks which mixes their job up. They really enjoy it. If someone has an idea, I try to embrace it as much as possible and let them do it.” When those in a position of leadership fail to listen they may be holding the team back from sharing ideas that could solve problems or push the organization forward. Service industries are built upon the strength of their team members to work together to carry the values of the organization through consistently on every project. Denis Beaulieu who operates in project management leading property restoration and abatement teams in Moorpark, California echoes the importance of listening, “Making sure that they are heard when asked. Have their ideas mean something and not just ask for an opinion or suggestion but try them and see if they work. Don’t discount anyone’s ideas or make yours more important.”
As noted by many that we interviewed, the catchwords and principles we hear from business leadership books go only as far as we are willing to apply them in our teams. What we want to know from real people who are practicing team work, leadership and developing organizations that operate on their values, is how they flesh out these principles in their day to day lives. Denis builds upon his comments from before regarding listening, “Empower people. They feel more a part of the organization when they feel they are part of it and not just working for it. Most important people want to feel they belong.” To be successful in a position of leadership, individuals must remember where they came from, what they desired while they were in the trenches and serve as an intermediary between the makers of decisions (the suits) and the daily decision makers (those in the field). Rex Fox who serves in the leadership team for a credit union based out of Eugene, Oregon, outlines a few key touch points relevant to listening, “Be approachable. Learn about the staff and what is important to them. Be trustworthy and trust your staff (but inspect). Roll up your sleeves and help when needed, but don’t do their jobs for them.” Rex brings up a great point that when we roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty being shoulder to shoulder with our team members there is an organic exchange between individuals that cannot be built any other way.
Listening provides a means to blur the lines between management and employees that often holds a company back from reaching it’s potential. When a person in a position of leadership takes the time to listen, they remind themselves and the whole team that we are all in this together. Much can be learned about individuals, teams, issues and opportunities by simply taking a moment to hear and receive input from those who are investing in the team, the customers and the culture.
Please note this is one segment in a series related to creating a good working environment based upon brief interviews that we conducted with multiple professionals across various industries, leadership roles and viewpoints on the topic. Stay tuned for more. Shoot us an email or comment if you have something to say on this as well.
Originally published as Team Dynamics: When Smart People Act Stupid In Business, January 24, 2017 in Young, Fabulous and Self Employed (YFS).
By Jon Isaacson
Intelligence does not always translate into savvy — especially when it relates to interpersonal dynamics within a team.
As a leader or manager (or whatever crafty title you’ve come up with to make corralling employees sound less bureaucratic), understanding and succeeding with humans will always be an evolving process.
Too often, smart people act in very stupid ways when dealing with others.
As noted in his book, Organizational Physics: The Science of Growing a Business, Lex Sisney outlines that the principles of “survival of the fittest” (a phrase that originated from Darwinian theory) was not about being the strongest or the smartest, but about being the best able to adapt to a given environment.
Adaptation at its most primal level is about survival. We observe in nature and in business that it is not always the smartest or strongest or the fittest for the role that rise to the highest levels of leadership.
There is no executive level leader who has not risen in the ranks without earning it in some way. We may disagree with their qualifications, but someone at some level who had authority found them fit for the role.
If you live your life frustrated by who is in power you will always be in turmoil. To rail against the system in a manner that changes nothing and only makes you bitter is a recipe for an aneurysm.
If you don’t understand by now, power is not about being the strongest, smartest or even the most qualified. If you think this – for as smart as you are, you sure are stupid.
Power dynamics in business
Continuing with the things observed in nature that apply to business, let’s move from the macro observations of power dynamics into the individual level of dealing with those people in your immediate sphere of influence.
If you know someone that you consistently butt heads with and find yourself frustrated with how they interpret and act upon conversations, you must understand that a leopard doesn’t change its spots.
Often the schism is related to communication which requires listening, interpretation and implementation.
One’s ability to understand is impacted by perspective and it is a statistical improbability that any two persons share 100% perspective alignment so there will always be a level of variance between how two people interpret a situation or conversation.
You will not wake up tomorrow and somehow make a 180 degree turn in how you see the world; so don’t expect others to either.
Most interpersonal friction is related to an expectation that the other party can see things in the same way and will arrive at the same conclusion. If you expect this – for as smart as you are, you sure are stupid.
So, what do we do then?
Are you giving away your power?First, understand that you are a leopard and that everyone else is a leopard as well. A leopard will not change it’s spots. At a base level individuals are not going to drastically change from who they are, how they see the world and how they respond to their environment.
Understanding yourself as a leopard and those you interact with as leopards will not solve your conflicts, but it will at least provide some perspective on the expectations you place on those relationships.
Secondly, survival requires adaptation. If you are in a truly toxic environment the smartest thing to do is to find a new environment.
If you are in an environment that has it’s ups and downs, but overall is an area that you feel you can make a positive impact in, then you will need to learn to adapt. Learning the language, culture and dynamics of your chosen environment is essential to your ability to thrive in any situation.
No one takes your power, no one can squeeze the life out of you, you choose how you allow people and situations to impact you. Confidently be your leopard self, stop being so functionally stupid and start adapting to your environment.
Thirdly, there is value in utilizing some of the many frameworks available for understanding and gaining perspective on those around you. Whether you are experiencing conflict within your team or not, investing in personality profiles and related tools can help create pathways for common language in working together.
As mentioned above, in Organizational Physics, Lex Sisney proposes that people are producers, stabilizers, innovators and/or unifiers (PSIU). Understanding where your leopard lines up in the characteristics of PSIU will help you better recognize your motivations, needs and sources of conflict as well as those characteristics in others.
There is no simple fix to human interactions, leopards have been roaring, clawing and biting other leopards for ages. If you aren’t doing something intentional to better the situation – for as smart as you are, you sure are stupid.
I could wish that I was cool enough to discover thoughtful gems such as this video by myself. I have Portland State University to thank for bringing me into contact with something that I viewed as a means to an end but ended up learning a thing or two. The attached video is about an hour long, so you may need to review it in a few settings or listen over an extended commute as I did.
This material came to me as a component of my undergraduate studies in Criminal Justice but the parallels to the industry in which I have devoted more than 15 years of my life are rather astounding. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky is a respected author, the speech follows the material in her book Trauma Stewardship, and speaker, including a TedTalk on this subject matter. Her keynote speech was given before service providers including hospital staff, counselors, teachers and various practitioners who come into contact with people in trauma and how those professionals ensure that their tanks are fueled enough to continue to respond. We have always said, that our team members have to remember that while we restore damaged properties for a living and have seen "a thing or two" (to borrow the tag line from Farmers Insurance), many of our customers, if they are lucky, are experiencing their first water or fire damage. When water, fire or other disasters strike home or business, there is emotional, mental and at times physical trauma. Something deeper than building materials is impacted when a structure is damaged. Our teams are meeting and responding to people in stages of trauma, most obviously when they are responding to conditions such as the recent hurricanes or the sad reality of a crime scene clean up.
My interest in the parallels was peaked as so I jotted a few notes as I listened, so my unpolished review includes these thoughts:
1. There is a collective toll from serving those in trauma which can be exacerbated when the system that is supposed to be supporting those on the front lines is compromised, broken and/or dysfunctional. Our job as leaders in our fields, at whatever level we find ourselves, is to work towards a system that enables, encourages and empowers our team members to care for themselves, care for the team and care for our clients. Emotional intelligence and empathy are key (more thoughts on this HERE).
2. Many people respond to repeated trauma by attempting to numb themselves. Numbing has consequences as a) shutting yourself down is removing the one thing in your power which is your ability to "be present" (you will have to listen to hear a more eloquent explanation of this by the author); b) shutting out increases the likelihood that you are losing awareness of doing harm to self, others and those you are serving; c) you cannot selectively numb out and numb back in, if you numb out in the professional arena it will have collateral damage into other arenas of your life. In contrast to numbing oneself or shutting things out, which have negative long term effects, we want to find ways to expand our capacity to be present. The author/speaker present simple concepts such as breathing exercises and provides other tools as well. Leaders should be aware of these consequences and lead by example in practicing positive measures as well as presenting these tools to their teams.
3. A major component of personal health relates to your ability to effectively move trauma through your system. When we regularly are caring for those impacted by trauma there is a toll on our selves and our teams known as vicarious trauma which we should be aware of so that we can address in positive ways.
4. For those that think Laura is just "rainbows and unicorns" spreading psycho babble, foremost she brings her experience from being on the front lines of trauma response and she has some rather stern warnings to those who might pigeon hole themselves as victims in there roles of responding to trauma. The speaker shares the power of an attitude of gratitude and shares how those principles can practically be applied to meetings to weave this vision throughout an organization. At one point the speaker gets rather pointed with the audience reminding them that this job is not being done to you, you have chosen to serve in this field, some people may need to find other lines of work and those that remain need to connect with what brought them to the field and carry on.
Trauma isn't always about one major event but rather can be cumulative which includes vicarious trauma from serving those who are in trauma. Those in positions of leadership in service fields should be aware of these concepts for themselves as well as for their teams. Investing in a holistic approach to personal and group health can go a long way to strengthening individuals while building a group that is poised to help themselves, the team and their clients.
In The DYOJO our goal is to help you discipline your mind and habits for growth. More info.