Two stories of leadership…

Story A

The Executive acknowledged the pain her supervisors were feeling as they were informed about the resignation of their popular Manager in the company town hall. She sat with them as they processed the information, some tearful while others were staring off. She listened to the few who spoke up. The discomfort was palatable…knowing how hard they’ve worked and how much harder it would be without this Manager was hard to put into words, but it was felt by all.

As she told the story, I could feel how difficult this was for her employees and especially for her.

Story B…

A company informed 400 employees they were being laid off by email. No director or leader was present to witness the consequences of their decision as the employees received the news.

I came across Story B while researching articles. Does it shock you like it did me when I read it for the first time? Surely, I thought, there was some kind of preparation for the employees prior to the delivery of the email.

Perhaps the point is made, enough said, by our organic reaction to the two stories. Think about it. Such a contrast.

The leader in the Story A is demonstrating that one essential skill, empathy. The leader in the Story B is not.

In this article…

I will describe the skill of empathy and how it is linked to a leader’s successful job performance by highlighting the study that supports this finding. More leadership and organizational considerations about the value and challenges for using the skill of empathy will be offered as well.

I.   The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) wanted to understand leader effectiveness and created a study.

CCL’s primary question was: Is empathy needed to be successful in a leader’s job?

To answer the question, they analyzed leaders’ empathy based on behavior. This is the definition of empathy they used…

Conveying empathic emotion is defined as the ability to understand what others are feeling, the ability to actively share emotions with others and passively experiencing the feelings of others in order to be effective.

Interestingly, the method they used was to ask the randomly selected leader to select at least three subordinates to rate them on their display of empathic behavior using four items from CCL’s Benchmarks 360-degree instrument…

  1. Is sensitive to signs of overwork in others.
  2. Shows interest in the needs, hopes, and dreams of other people.
  3. Is willing to help an employee with personal problems.
  4. Conveys compassion toward them when other people disclose a personal loss.

(Questions were measured on a 5-point scale with 1 = not at all to 5 = to a very great extent.)

Then, each leader in the sample asked one boss to rate them on three items that measured job performance. They were…

  1. How would you rate this person’s performance in his/her present job (1 = among the worst to 5 = among the best);
  2. Where would you place this person as a leader compared to other leaders inside and outside your organization (1 = among the worst to 5 = among the best); and
  3. What is the likelihood that this person will derail (i.e., plateau, be demoted, or fired) in the next five years as a result of his/her actions or behaviors as a manager?” (1 = not at all likely to 5 = almost certain).

The results revealed that empathy is positively correlated to job performance. Leaders who showed more empathy were also seen as better job performers by their bosses.

II.   More ROI for leaders who are skillful at empathy as well as humble.

Employees tend to be more engaged and innovative when a leader’s ego is less rather than more. With a diminished ego and humble stance, a leader invites employees to contribute. It makes sense. The barriers psychologically to take risks with ideas is reduced with an approachable, humble style of leadership that communicates a willingness to learn.

In the global marketplace, a leader needs the involvement of employees with diverse cultural backgrounds. Companies that recognize the importance of caring and building a supportive work environment are ahead of the competition that doesn’t.

III.  More face-to-face time is key to conveying empathy.

Story B, the missing-in-action leader, is an extreme example of indifference, and I’m going to hope is rare.

Yet, technology with all it’s wonderful attributes has simplified the exchange of information through smart phones, etc. Sherry Turkel, in the book Reclaiming Conversation talks about “conversational sips”. Sips of conversation aren’t enough. Emoticons are fun, but aren’t the same as talking face-to-face.

The challenge for busy leaders is to make the time to meet face-to-face, like the executive did in Story A.

The courage it takes to be present fully, face-to-face is a factor and perhaps the reason more face-to-face is consciously or unconsciously avoided. No doubt, feelings are going to show up and various vulnerabilities as well, for both leader and employee.

Supportive measures to process difficult conversations and/or vulnerabilities are needed. Should the leader in Story B have taken the opportunity to be present and witness the consequences of the decision to lay off employees?  How are the surviving employees thinking about the leadership and organization?

IV.   More ideas about connecting with employees and conveying empathy.

–Discover and dialogue with others both inside and outside your organization about the quality of your interactions. Use the four descriptions of behaviors that convey empathy listed above from the CCL study. Ask your partner or friends to give you feedback. Go online and take an empathy quiz. Review the various formal assessments you have taken for more ideas about empathy.

–Conventional wisdom says it’s important to balance face-to-face and electronic communication as a leader. Makes sense. Go and give the message in person next time instead of sending an email. Saying hello in the elevator is a natural way to engender caring.

–Check out your listening skills. If you aren’t already, listen without distraction. Shut off the computer, phone and TV. Look at the person talking, take a deep breath and be with them. Don’t interrupt. What’s that like? Are you able to share the other person’s perspective, even if you don’t agree? Does the other person feel like you understand their point of view?

–A personal favorite is listening to a symphony, watching a performance, reading or writing poetry and enjoying the beauty outside.

A gestalt exercise I find valuable for practicing the presence in the here and now is sitting across from another and taking turns answering the following sequence of sentence stems three times:  “When I look at you I see…(repeat 3 times)…When I look at you I feel…(repeat 3 times)…When I look at you I think…(repeat 3 times) ”

Choose to practice with a partner or friend. Explain that you’re experimenting with a communication skill.

If it is challenging to get started, that’s okay. I hope you’ll keep at it despite any awkwardness. The purpose is to stay in the present with feelings and thoughts….awareness. Let me know how it goes.

–Another idea is to find a mentor you can talk to freely. Hire an executive coach who can be a trusted sounding board for you to share the human side of leadership.

The takeaway is…

Yes, leaders who demonstrate empathy are viewed by employees positively and evaluated as better job performers. Check out the value of conveying empathy both inside and outside the workplace.

Leaders with empathy skills. Another plus for all of us.

Here’s a challenge:  How will you share empathy today?

If you’d like to talk with me about your unique situation at work, please contact me…I’d love to set aside 45 minutes to help you strategize your next brave moves for the life you’d love to live,