influence

Empathy in business: misplaced or irreplaceable?

There’s been a lot of talk in the news lately about empathy. It’s fascinating to see how much impact such an ethereal thing can have on people.

But what about business? We want to measure everything and have numbers to support every decision. There’s no line on the balance sheet for “empathy”.  So should we bag it?

This article from The Atlantic outlines cognitive psychologist David Bloom’s arguments against empathy. He says we are more likely to make bad decisions when we are being empathetic, for example being swayed by a “small” issue because we can feel the other person’s pain, while ignoring “big” issues that may actually be more catastrophic.

And game theory shows us that when playing a zero-sum game, the player who consistently takes the “up” (win) position will win much more often than a player who sometimes takes the “down” (lose) position. In business, consistently taking the “down” position because you are empathetic to the other side can indeed result in losing. A lot. This suggests that we should always take the “up” position.

But what if business isn’t always a zero sum game? Indeed, I believe it usually is NOT. What if your “opponent” is within your company? If you win but they lose, have you really added value for your organization? What if your “opponent” is your customer? If you win but they lose, how long will they be a customer?  How long will you be in business? This is one of the reasons I suggest the premise that the only true aim of a business is to create profit is BULL. I won’t go into a long discussion of that, but in short, In order to create long-term value we must find the win-win. It’s true for what we offer to the market. It’s true for big negotiations but also day-to-day interactions. And, in order to find the win-win, understanding what is important to the other side is important. One might call this empathy.

There has been quite a bit of focus on EQ in addition to IQ since Daniel Goleman’s groundbreaking book Emotional Intelligence. At it’s heart (and with science behind it,) it suggests that the ability to read other’s emotions and manage them is critical to being a great leader. I agree 100% and I suggest that to do this well, we must not just read but truly honor their emotions even if we don’t hold the same ones. Reading and then ignoring their emotions does nothing.

We must not, however, forget our own aims. We must not forget reason. This is the danger of empathy–that we sacrifice our own needs completely. Bloom suggests that we can do good for others based on other things. To do good, he said, “we need an emotional push. But the push need not come from empathy. It can come from love, from caring, from compassion, from more distant emotions that don’t come from being swallowed up in the suffering of others.”

At the end of the day, I believe love, caring, compassion and even understanding your customer are only possible with empathy. So, I don’t think we should bag it. I think we need empathy as one of the critical tools in our leadership toolkit.

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CWC #11

Do you know who the power players are on your team? You know, the people who always seem to get their way, who make things happen. They are often the “emotional leaders” of the team, regardless of the formal position they hold. Perhaps you’re one of them. If not, and you want to be more effective or  influential in your business, consider getting to know them better.

  • They can be fantastic allies. When you need support for your project, see if you can sell them on the idea first. You may set a wave in motion that can carry you forward. Or, find out they have concerns that could stop the project.  Better to find out and address those concerns early.  
  • They can also be fantastic teachers, even without knowing it. Take a good look at these folks. What do they do that works so well to motivate others, above, below or around them? Maybe there is something you can learn and integrate into your mode of operation. (I call people like this “mentors from afar.”)

Think about it: What power players do you admire and what can you learn from them?

The calculus of power

When I was in college, I took Calculus for the first time.  Math was never my strongest subject and in Calculus I was completely lost. Now, I realize I just didn’t have the context I needed to understand what it really meant.

Recently, I was reading a book on women and power.  It included advice on behaviors women should incorporate more into their own modus operandi in order to appear more powerful — behaviors which send unconscious messages about relative power.  One such behavior is interrupting.  Once you start looking for it, it’s easy to see: people who come across as powerful often do interrupt others, and no one seems to mind (even though we were all taught as children not to interrupt.)  So, one can generalize that if you interrupt more, you will be perceived as more powerful.   As specific advice, though, this is tricky isn’t it?

Which brings us back to Calculus. 

As I was considering this advice about interrupting and how that would translate for one of the young business leaders I coach, I realized the complexity of the equation. You cannot simply tell someone to interrupt more. So many factors play into the situation that can completely change the output — the difference in organizational level between the two parties, the setting, the organizational culture, and more.  Imagine an intern interrupting the company president in a board meeting within a stiffly hierarchical organization.  Career suicide, right?  Okay, I know that is an extreme example.  But the point is, this is a very careful science, the wielding of power. 

In Calculus, a derivative is the measure of how a function changes as the inputs change.  In wielding power also, the function, i.e. the behavior, must change as the inputs change.  These changes may be so minute it is hard to put into words.  This is why the best teacher is experience.  Through experience, one can detect and adjust to changes so small they can’t even be articulated well.  However, there is a certain amount of benefit in providing some construct, some theory, some advice as a foundation.  For those of us who guide others, we can at least describe some limits.  In Calculus, limits capture and describe small scale change.  As coaches, we can describe certain small changes and their likely effect.  After that, the individual must rely on experience to learn the balance. 

Boy, who knew 20 years later, that subject would finally start making sense!

What’s your IQ (influence quotient)?

In most of the leadership coaching I’ve done, the theme of influence stands out.  People who want to improve their leadership skills almost always understand that they need to expand their ability to influence others.  But their efforts translate into simply trying harder at using the same old skills, often to little incremental effect.

A number of years ago, I took a fantastic course on Consulting Skills through PDI (Personnel Decisions International).  Included in the course material was some intriguing information on influence tactics, based on the research by Yukl & Falbe.  We did a fun little exercise in which the participants guessed what the effectiveness of various tactics would be in gaining commitment vs. compliance vs. resistance of those we were trying to influence (the targets).  What I and others in the course came to realize was that we each heavily relied on one or two tactics and wielded them consistently regardless of their actual effectivness.  I rated rational persuasion at the top of my list.  Why wouldn’t it be?  That’s what typically works on me!   Isn’t everyone like me?  Ahh…the short answer is “no”.  

Rational persuasion is not the top tactic in terms of effectiveness.  Negotiation?  Huh-uh.  Ingratiation?  Pressure?  No and no.  Inspirational appeal is number one in gaining commitment from others.  This was an ah-ha, and made a lot of sense once I thought about it.  But inspirational appeal does not work in all cases.  The real ah-ha here is this:  all tactics work in some cases.  Therefore, the key to increasing influence is to learn to wield a number of tactics and recognize when and with whom they work.  In this manner you can really increase your influence quotient. 

Try it.  Invest 30 minutes to google and read up on the various influence tactics (search Yukl & Falbe to start).  Then, start paying attention to the tactics you use.  Observe others using different tactics.  Try some new ones out on your own.  Give yourself some room to stumble, but keep on going.   Soon, you’ll find you have an increased IQ!