Leading with Empathy: Why do we Still not Believe?

Leading with Empathy: Why do we Still not Believe?

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A lot of people when they hear the word “empathy” in a business context still think of it as soft, somehow lacking authority and conviction. That leaders who have empathy for the people they lead aren’t making the difficult decisions or commanding the appropriate respect.

We now have conclusive evidence this is not the case.

In her Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, The Hard Data on Being a Nice Boss, Emma Seppala cites research by Harvard Business School’s Amy Cuddy:

Leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.

Seppala goes on to cite studies by Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business:

Jonathan Haidt at New York University Stern School of Business shows in his research that when leaders are self-sacrificing, their employees experience being moved and inspired. As a consequence, the employees feel more loyal and committed and are more likely to go out of their way to be helpful and friendly to other employees. Research on “paying it forward” shows that when you work with people who help you, in turn you will be more likely to help others (and not necessarily just those who helped you).

So, with these and many more studies, there is no reason to still be skeptical of empathy as a trait of a great leader.

Tony Norton, in his article Why the empathetic leader is the best leader, talks about Simon Sinek in his best-selling book on team-building.

Empathy—the ability to recognize and share other people’s feelings—is the most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox, Sinek believes. It can be expressed in the simple words, “Is everything OK?”

It’s what effective leaders ask an employee, instead of commanding “Clean out your desk” when he or she starts slacking off. It’s what you ask a client when a once-harmonious relationship gets rocky. “I really believe in quiet confrontation,” Sinek says. “If you had a good working relationship with someone and it’s suddenly gone sour, I believe in saying something like, ‘When we started we were both so excited, and it’s become really difficult now. Are you OK? What’s changed?’ ”

Sinek has been training himself to be more empathic by paying attention to everyday gestures, such as holding elevators for others or refilling the coffeemaker. Even small acts of kindness release a tiny shot of feel-good oxytocin. What’s more, “These little considerations for others have a building effect,” Sinek says. “The daily practice of putting the well-being of others first has a compounding and reciprocal effect in relationships, in friendships, in the way we treat our clients and our colleagues.”

I have no doubt that empathy will become further recognised as one of the traits of a truly great leader. Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the list goes on and on. As we recognise true leaders in history, and analyse what makes them great, we’ll come to understand the importance of empathy.

In the business world, leaders need to have emotional intelligence and the ability to truly listen and hear what their employees are telling them. True leaders in business will think about how management decisions will affect their employees, they’ll clearly communicate the changes, and will minimise any adverse effects.

When employees feel their leaders truly hear them, and understand where they’re coming from, they’ll feel more comfortable and trust that leaders ‘have their back’ and are making the right decisions for the organisation. This leads to more engaged, happier employees who are more productive.

I’m a believer.

Positive Psychology and CheerLEADING™

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Wikipedia says “To Martin Seligman, psychology (particularly its positive branch) can investigate and promote realistic ways of fostering more joy in individuals and communities”. Don’t we all want some of that? Team members need it more than anything. People need to have a goal to work towards. Something positive to look forward to, to give them the motivation to keep working hard.

I’m not pretending to be an expert on Positive Psychology, but, from what I have heard and read, I think it’s a really useful scientific discipline which can be easily applied to the work environment, particularly when it’s applied to leadership.

Martin Seligman is considered to be the founder of modern Positive Psychology. Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote, in their article “Positive Psychology: An Introduction“, “Because negative emotions often reflect immediate problems or objective dangers, they should be powerful enough to force people to stop, increase their vigilance, reflect on their behavior, and change their actions if necessary.” I think this is the key to Positive Psychology as a leadership discipline. It takes just that, discipline, to practice it effectively.

It takes a conscious effort, everyday, to be aware of how one’s actions impact others, particularly those who work for us. It is easy not to take notice, but we need to take notice and we need to adjust our behaviour if necessary. “Positive Psychology represents a commitment to the sources of psychological wellness, such as positive emotions, positive experiences, positive environments, and human strengths and virtues (Lyubomirsky, 2007).” I believe that leaders have an obligation to provide a positive environment for people at work.

Leaders also have an obligation to provide positive, as well as negative, feedback. In fact, the positive feedback should outweigh the negative. It might sound overly simple, but I believe leaders forget this. If people aren’t receiving positive reinforcement when they are doing a good job, they tend to cease doing such a good job.

CheerLEADING™ and women in leadership

I’m just going to put this out there – some women in leadership are not doing this very well. They should be CheerLEADING™ other women but, instead, they act in ways that discourages the women in positions lower than themselves. In other words, sometimes, we can be our own worst enemies.

I think that some women are so used to competing in a ‘man’s world’, that they naturally compete against other women coming through the ranks and can actually make other women’s career paths quite difficult. I hear of women in leadership roles being a ‘hard marker’ when it comes to working with other women in their teams.

Women in leadership should be making life easier for other women. CheerLEADING™ is all about positive psychology, encouraging, praising and guiding the people who work in our teams. Taking the time to really lead with integrity and compassion. I think women should be showing men how to do this well. Communicating encouragement and praise should come easily. We do this naturally in our everyday lives.

I’m not saying there are not some fantastic women doing this well, as there are, I’m just saying that maybe we should be working towards doing this better. Women in business need to stick together. It’s a tough enough place for women, well, in some workplaces and in some industries. Often all we need is just one other person looking out for us. Blazing the path and making the path easier, rather than making it more difficult.

I would love to see some comments on this. Am I the only one who has experienced this?

 

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