leadership

Empathy: The Game Changer

Do you mirror others’ thoughts and feelings?

I recently wrote a post in support of empathy in the workplace. A new study by DDI proves I was on to something.

In their recent study, High Resolution Leadership, in which they synthesized the assessments of over 15,000 leaders and how they shape the business landscape, DDI (Development Dimensions International) found empathy had the greatest overall impact of ANY skill they assessed. Imagine that. One of the “softest” skills imaginable had the most measurable impact on performance. If you’re in the HR space, you’re already familiar with DDI and know that they are one of the most highly respected consultancies in the business. So, in my view, this study is huge. Simply put, greater empathy means higher performance.

You can read their online report by clicking on the link above or here. Of, if you want a quick read, this article from Inc.com sums it up nicely.

You want high performance, right? So what will you do to develop your own empathy skills or those of others in your organization?

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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.

How are you showing up?

640px-Lioness-in-the-Serengeti

“Lioness-in-the-Serengeti” by Charles J Sharp – Cannon EOS with 300mm zoom lens. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5.

If you talk to twenty different people about how to “show up strong” you may get twenty different answers. This is because we all view strength through our own lens. There are, however, many studies that do show some statistically common responses to various behaviors. It’s good data, when interpreted correctly. Unfortunately, many people interpret it to sound as though we all have to be Ringmasters — performers with a booming voice, oozing charisma — to get anyone to follow us. Fortunately, this is not true. There are some great resources out there which suggest alternate paths, such as Quiet Leadership by David Rock, and some of the insights in Good to Great and Built to Last by Jim Collins.

Here, I add my thoughts, based on my experience with leaders over the past 20+ years. If you want to show up with strong leadership presence, I’ll boil it down to four big things:

Clarity of Purpose

The most important thing you can do before going into a situation where you want to show up strong is to clarify your purpose. When you remember why you are on this project, or making this recommendation or believe in this effort, you will feel greater commitment, communicate more clearly and stand stronger in the face of opposition. Bottom line, you will come across as more confident as well as competent. Before any meeting, take a few minutes to center your thoughts and consider:

  • Why am I / are we doing this?
  • What impact can / will it have?

Big Picture Focus

If the batting coach only talks about batting 100% of the time, and never about the team as a whole, he or she will never be seen as someone who can be the head coach.

Remember that the higher up in any organization a person goes, the greater the scope of concerns. If you only focus on small details, the message you are sending is that your scope and understanding is very small. This is unlikely to impress or influence others with larger scope concerns. Always:

  • Take time to understand what the big picture goal is and how your piece of the puzzle connects to it.
  • Reference that big picture any time you are speaking or presenting.

This will reinforce the impression by your audience that you can play at a higher level (or already are.)

Self Awareness

Here is where the external self becomes an even bigger part of the equation. Pay attention to your physical habits. Do they say small, weak and unsure, or strong, open and confident?  Are you like a mouse, with quick, small, nervous-seeming movements? Or are you like a lion with big, deliberate movements?  This does not mean loud = strong. Birds can be loud, squawking all the time. A bunch of loud squawking does not say “powerful”. It says “annoying”. Lions do not roar all the time. But you always know they are there. And when they do vocalize, you listen.

The next time you are in a situation where you want to appear strong (or preferably before that, while you are preparing):

  • Envision a mirror in front of you. What body language do you see?
  • Also, listen to your choice of words and tone of voice. Are you using lots of wiggle words and phrases (maybe, I think, this might be stupid but…)
  • Ask a trusted colleague how you are showing up and what behaviors, words and vocal cues give that impression.

Remember that we are all sending messages of submission, power, understanding, focus, nervousness, confusion, and many other things continuously through our actions and our words. What do yours say about you?

Self Control

Self awareness, if we do nothing with it, is not worth much. Once you identify behaviors that are counter-productive, you must engage in some kind of behavior modification. This may be a quick and easy change or a long, difficult process which takes many, many times to practice until the new behavior feels more natural. Remember how long it took you to learn to walk? No, of course you don’t, but I’ll tell you it wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy. But you did it.

Before you go into a situation where you want to show up differently:

  • Decide and practice in advance what behaviors you will use to replace the behaviors you don’t want.
  • Keep practicing until the new behaviors become ingrained.
  • Just before “performing”, do something physical. Get out the excess energy if you have too much with some jumping jacks or shake it out with your arms and shoulders like a boxer (where no one can see you!) Or, if you feel withdrawn and low energy, do some power poses and power breaths to feel bigger and stronger.
  • Envision success.
  • Only try to control what you can control — you!
  • Remember that you will survive no matter what. Seriously. Framing the situation properly can help to quell that fight or flight response in our brains that can send us back to our old habits.

The great thing about using strong behaviors is that it actually affects your brain chemistry and you feel stronger too, especially over time. Our minds and bodies have a pretty cool thing going on there.

Try these four tips and let me know how they help you to show up strong!

Development Through Delegation

In a previous post, I talked about owning your weaknesses.  I believe owning them allows you to better overcome or work around them, and ultimately to become more impactful.

One of the strategies for not letting your weaknesses hold you back is to find others who are strong in your area of weakness. Once you do this, you can tap into them, and have better odds of achieving your goals.  But only if you are willing to delegate.  When you delegate, you can also do something equally important: you can help others achieve their goals.

This is a strategy of the best leaders: to develop those around them. It’s a no-brainer, right? Okay, then why don’t more people do it?  How many leaders do you know that are 100% about achieving the results of today, so focused on the now, they don’t prepare their people for the future? Then they wonder why they have no candidates ready for succession, why their most ambitious and eager talent leave.

People are motivated when they can use their gifts, and when they can grow. If you try to do it all, what are you leaving for others? If you try to do it all, at the end of the day, you will severely limit your impact. But if you bring others into the work, give them assignments (and don’t take them back), allow them to make decisions, and provide feedback and encouragement — now you can begin to have exponential impact, both today and tomorrow.

Delegation is often one of the toughest challenges of new leaders but sometimes experienced leaders too.  First, you must make the mental shift to recognizing that when you delegate you are creating opportunity. Second, you must practice the behaviors of delegation until they are comfortable for you. There are many books and online resources available to help you learn the behaviors of delegation. One easy and practical guide is Delegation & Supervision by Brian Tracy, but I trust you to seek out and find the resource that’s right for you. (See how I did that?)

Happy delegating!

You’re leading but does anyone want to follow?

An HR manager I know and respect shared an article with me recently and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. When I read 10 Ways Companies Drive Away Talent from Liz Ryan on Forbes.com I nearly yelled Yes, yes, yes! aloud.  It is truly a must-read article, so the link is included. She is so right about all the things companies do that not only fail to attract, but actively repel top talent, which frankly is really… well, sad. And frustrating.

How is it that the people who are supposed to know the most about attracting, motivating and retaining talent are doing such a poor to mediocre job on average? There are many reasons we’ve ended up going down this rabbit hole but the more important question is: as a leader, what obligation do you have to do something about it?

If you’ve accepted a leadership position in your company, you’ve agreed to be a steward of the success and well-being of that company. You’ve accepted the responsibility of speaking up when something’s not working.

  • Do you have chronically open positions which you have trouble finding the right candidates for, even though you know plenty of people with that skill set exist in the market?
  • Are you able to fill the positions as advertised, but can’t keep anyone in them long enough to get really good?
  • Do the best producers or employees with the best relationship with your clients leave at a higher rate than you’d like?

These are indicators that something is not working.  Often, that something has to do with treating human beings like non-human beings. When it comes to customers, we spend a lot of time figuring out how to capture their emotions and make it easy for them to buy from us (1-click anyone?) over and over and over again. Why do we think employees are any different?  The economic realities of the past few years have lulled us into a false sense of security, but as the tide turns, many companies will be caught flat-footed.

So, here’s what you can do: question how your talent is being attracted, rewarded, developed and treated overall, by you personally and by your company. Don’t accept “it’s just our policy” or “that’s just the process” for an answer. Find out why. There is a reason. Processes and policies are created with good intention. Most often it’s risk avoidance; sometimes it’s because that’s how “everyone” does it. But, did anybody weigh that against the cost of not being able to fill positions, of having poor producers stay and top producers leave, of having employees who once developed top quality products or loyal customer relationships give up and accept mediocre because they can’t fight the system anymore?  A bad system will foil a good worker every time. This isn’t news. Check out Deming’s Red Bead Experiment if you’ve never heard of it before.

If you want to be a leader good people will want to follow, look at their experience of finding you, joining you and staying with you, and work to make the experience one they would choose over and over and over again.

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?

CWC #8

Here’s a touchy subject: have you ever had a complaint brought against you in the workplace? If you have, you’re not alone. I’ve known many leaders who were the object of complaints (a hazard my job when I was in HR).

The thing is, one complaint can actually be an indicator that you are doing what you’re supposed to do. Low performers who’ve been allowed to slide for years can be pricklier than a porcupine when they are suddenly held to the standard they should have been all along. If you’re not willing to make them unhappy, and risk a complaint being made about you, you may not be cut out for leadership.

On the other hand, if you’ve had a handful of complaints (or more!) made about you, it’s time for some serious introspection.  Ask yourself what, or who, is the common denominator.  Answer: it’s you. If multiple people have complained that you play favorites, or that you treat people disrespectfully, you probably do. Get honest with yourself and be willing to change your behavior or your train just might jump the tracks.

Who best to create great companies? Artists

I found this fascinating article on fastcompany.com (truly my favorite business magazine of all time) about a new book by Jim Stengel called Grow.  I have not yet read the book but am intrigued and excited by the premise that the most successful businesses are led by “business artists”.

http://www.fastcocreate.com/1679354/marketing-leader-jim-stengel-on-the-one-thing-businesses-need-to-grow

Basically, the idea is that creative vision and relentless pursuit of the ideal drive innovation and products that truly inspire (including inpsiring buying behavior).  Steve Jobs is exhibit 1.

I love this idea and I agree with it.  The brands I truly love and am loyal to do not manage to the lowest common denominator.  They are much more focused on quality and customer experience.  They know it’s not all about efficiency.  It’s a certain je ne sais quoi.

In this spirit of celebrating creativity, I’ll be kicking off a series soon on creative careers.  In the meantime, watch for new LinkedIn tips.

Some of the best leaders are introverts

And some are extroverts.  Bottom line: either can work.  Whether you are introverted or extroverted is not the primary consideration in whether you are, or can be, a great leader.  This idea flies in the face of that unconscious impression formed in our psyches from early on.  Somewhere along the way, we begin to believe that the stereotypical charismatic leader is the only true leader in this world.  Wrong.   

Charismatic types often are good or even great leaders but there is ample research that shows that all leaders are not poured from the same mold.  In fact, in Good to Great, Jim Collins shares findings that leaders of many of the “great” companies do not fit the mold of the charismatic leader.  Many of them were described as naturally introverted.   There were certain other characteristics that they shared that I won’t go into here, but I highly recommend the book.

I often work with coaching clients who are focusing on developing their leadership skills.  Many of them, particularly those early in their careers, worry that they don’t have “it” – natural leadership ability.  They are anxious about trying to become someone they’re not, or pretend that they’re someone they’re not.  They have foreseen failure before they even get started.    Because they get nervous giving presentations.  Because they don’t know how to read people easily.  Because they aren’t uber-confident, directorial, silver-tongued extroverts. Because, because, because. 

There was a fantastic article in Fast Company that made me literally exclaim “yes!” when I read it: How An Introverted Engineer Came Out Of His Shell To Lead Mozilla by Kermit Pattison.  In it, John Lilly, former Mozilla CEO, talks about how he learned to make really small changes – microbehaviors – which had a tremendous effect on how people perceived him.  He didn’t change who he was, just a few things that he did.

You can do this too.  Find a coach or a mentor, read a bit on the topic of leadership behaviors, or attend a workshop, but most importantly, take action.  Start experimenting with tiny changes.  See what works, see what feels authentic for you.  Incorporate change one degree at a time.  Over time, you’ll be amazed at where you can end up.

The burden of leadership

Leadership.  The brass ring.  The golden ticket.  What we all aspire to, right?   It does have its privileges.  But who was it that said that with great power comes great responsibility?  Boy, were they right. 

One of the most interesting lessons I see developing leaders learn is that leadership is not all about getting what you want.   In fact, they are astonished to realize how often they must focus on what others want.  Or, rather, what they need.   A leader’s challenge, gift and burden is to give others what they need in order to be effective, even when it’s not what the leader wants or needs. 

And, to take it a step further, to give people what they need even when it’s in conflict with what they want.  And that’s not easy.  Why squelch your own needs to meet others’ needs, when they don’t even appreciate it?!  Because sometimes that’s what it takes to get the job done and, perhaps more importantly, to help people become more than they are today. 

Don’t like “socializing”?  Too bad.  If sitting down with an employee to chit-chat for five minutes a day is what develops the relationship that allows that person to tell you what’s really going on with the project, or that they are interested in a promotion, it’s worth it.  If delegating some pieces of your own responsibility to a team member (even though you’d rather keep those) in order to develop their skills doesn’t sound like something you can do, you need to ask if you can be an effective leader.  If you won’t tell someone their performance is lagging, because it makes you too uncomfortable, leadership might not be for you. 

There’s a lot of good to be said about the benefits of leadership.  However, never forget the burden, and never shy away from it.