The challenge for leaders in any organization is getting to know their people in such a way that they truly are capable of demonstrating empathy, a quality of Emotional Intelligence that has been proven by researchers Daniel Goleman and Dr. Ruven Bar-On to be essential to successful leadership.
One executive coaching client was on the path to become a partner in one of the big four accounting firms. I had met him at a leadership conference for executives whose faith was very important to them, and whose desire it was to band together with like-minded leaders to find opportunities to use their influence and position to do good in the world. When this gentleman engaged me as a coach, he explained that he had continued to run into roadblocks on his way to becoming partner, and that he had recently been approached by one of the senior partners whom he respected, and was told that because of the consistently poor ratings that others in the organization had been giving him, it was unlikely that he would make it unless he could get this turned around fairly quickly.
You would think that a guy with a strong Christian faith and values would not have these types of issues. Let me assure you, that Christian people are human too, and that many of the problems that exist in the workplace are common to them as well. The good news is that he was humble enough to search for solutions.
In our discussions I learned several things about this person. He was a highly valued contributor in his firm. He was well known for getting results. He established great relationships with his customers and was highly sought after by them. He was looked to as a teacher to others about his area of specialty. He loved his wife and kids, and was involved in his church and community. He could not understand why he had hit this roadblock in his career progression.
I conducted several interviews, administered personality and leadership assessments and reviewed his 360 degree multi rater surveys in order to get as much information about him as possible. I even interviewed his wife to learn about her perceptions of his strengths and weaknesses. What we learned can be summed up quite simply. He had, what Daniel Goleman has termed “empathy deficit disorder”. He had forgotten that his team members were people and wanted to work for a human being, rather than a human doing. I discovered this by asking him about the members he had gathered to help him with his current project. He disappointed himself in that he couldn’t tell me anything about them other than their specialty skills each brought to the project. I asked him what he thought this team knew about him and he said, probably the same thing he knew about them, that he was competent in his particular area of specialty.
He said he had never asked them about anything on a personal level, and had never spoken to them about his personal life, his wife and children, his involvement in his church and community, his values or the things that were really important to him. He said it had just never occurred to him to do so. He said he had always been “all business”. Then he said, “No wonder they don’t like working for me.” We discussed ways to remedy this deficit and make the shift to becoming a more empathetic leader, who cared about the people he led as much as he cared about getting the job done well. This was actually pretty exciting for him, because one of the things he valued was making a positive difference in the lives of others.
He immediately invited his team out for a big dinner with their spouses or significant others, and told them that “tonight we don’t talk business”. He said, “I just want us to get to know each other a little bit better, so you can know who you will be working with on this project, and the things that are important to them.” He introduced them to his spouse, and he and his wife began to share with the group who they were, what they did, who their family is, where they were from, and how they had gotten to this place in life and career, and about the things that were important to them. He asked each of them to share as much as they were comfortable sharing. He said the evening went quite late, but no one was bored, no one left early, and everyone readily engaged in the conversation. The result was that this team walked away knowing each other a whole lot better. They learned to respect each other in new and different ways. They learned what was important to each other, and showed a willingness to step in and cover for each other when family or personal issues surfaced in the midst of the project, where before there had always been animosity and frustration when personal issues interfered with work.
That night he began the process of turning his team around and his career around. He later told me that this experience brought him a new sense of energy and enthusiasm about his work. He said that now it meant much more to him than just achieving a goal and being a rainmaker. It was about making a difference for those he was charged with leading and developing.
I have written recently about reasons executives derail. The following story is an illustration of one of the reasons why this happens so frequently. They simply lose touch.
On one occasion I was called in by a senior executive to help her leadership team. I had been working with her team on several leadership development programs for her senior leadership team over the years, but this year she said we needed a different approach. She was concerned that this group of 30-35 high performing executives, from senior directors to vice presidents, had lost touch with the hundreds of employees they were charged with leading. They had become so concerned about their projects and their goals that they were not taking the time to develop people, were firing people too quickly without giving them much of an opportunity to change or turn things around. She was concerned that the culture, which was such a big part of their company, would be perceived as a sham if they didn’t turn this around.
Some of these leaders grew up in fairly good socioeconomic conditions and had never really experienced what it meant to live from paycheck to paycheck as was the case for many of their employees. Others who grew up through the ranks and remember well what it was like to be at the bottom of the food chain in a company. But even then, the tendency is for leadership to erode empathy. And, according to Professor Kelton of Berkley, the more power a leader gets, the more their empathy erodes, confirming Lord Acton’s maxim, Power tends to Corrupt and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. For more information on this, read my post Exceptional Leaders and The Paradox of Power.
So, how do you go about instilling empathy in a group of high energy, goal driven, powerful, high income senior leaders? I pitched an idea to the senior executive that was a little out of the box, and took it back to our team to develop an experience that would bring these leaders back down to earth where most of the world they manage lived every day. It was essential that they be capable of reflecting on the lives of the people impacted by their daily decisions.
We took this group on a full-day field trip, if you will, to a nearby metropolitan area. They were divided up into small groups, each with particular assignments and a pittance of a budget for their lunch. In essence all three of them would have to eat on less than what one of them usually spent on their lunch. They began to gritch and groan at the prospects. We then brought them back together to hear anonymous recorded testimonies from their employees describing their lives. They heard employees tell about living from paycheck to paycheck, from single moms who knew exactly how many trips they could make on a tank of gas, and how they budget their money for groceries and bills, from those who were living in situations where domestic violence was an imminent threat, and so on and so on. These leaders were shocked that these stories were the true life stories of the people who worked for them. They also heard from people about how important their job was to them, and how they worked hard to stay focused and to prevent these personal issues from interfering with their performance.
These executives ended their day at a local soup kitchen where they were assigned to serve food and have a meal with the guests. Their assignment was simply to get to know the guests. This was a very uncomfortable assignment for many of these executives. Most had never talked to a homeless person. Many had preconceived ideas about them, all of which were shattered that evening. I’ll never forget the one executive telling me that what surprised him most is the one guest of the soup kitchen who told him that he too had once been an senior manager in his company, but fell on hard times and had not been able to find his way out.
The leadership session ended with a facilitated discussion about how leadership could look in their area of responsibility. These leaders went back with a different kind of appreciation for their people, their capabilities and their courage. They went back with a little more patience than before. They went back with new perspectives and greater empathy toward people whose livelihoods were in their hands. They were still charged with making decisions and achieving results. They just learned that they can get this done in a little different way.
- Becoming too far removed from those they lead
- They lose the capacity for empathy
- Being unaware of the needs of others.
- Whether this is unintentional, due to their personality, or being overly focused on the scoreboard, it leads to the same impact, loss of credibility, and being seen as cold, insensitive or even psychopathic.
- Falling in love with the illusion of themselves.
- As ugly as this sounds, most leaders plagued by it don’t even see this in themselves, because few are willing to provide them with honest feedback. And that’s for a lot of good reasons.
- Ignoring the power gap that comes with their position and authority.
- Again, often unintentional, but leaders who think they are just one of the guys, or fail to understand the magnitude of the impact of their words and actions are destined to either run good people off, cause them to freeze up, or derail themselves.
- Impatience with the processes required for their organization to function effectively.
- These are leaders who keep throwing, what I have come to call E-Grenades, into their organization, blowing it up and being surprised or frustrated with their people or the result.
- An absence of, or an ill-defined philosophy of leadership.
- These leaders either lead by the seat of their pants, or who hold to a philosophy that believes their employees are less than competent and unmotivated to succeed.
- Being too insecure to lead.
- These leaders are threatened by the competence of the people they hire. The result is they lose good people, their department remains in chaos, and they ultimately derail, all while frantically trying to keep that from happening.
- Forgetting that they, too, are human.
- I guess it’s my Biblical up-bringing, but I believe and have witnessed our natural tendency toward self-centeredness and self-protection. Without a clear acceptance of this and a concerted effort to change, leaders are headed for disaster.
- This is the greatest challenge facing most executives and leaders. Some of it is due to the position. Some of it is due to a unique personality style. Some of it is self-imposed due to fear or pride. Leaders who don’t have a true confidant who will provide them with candid feedback and coaching regarding their professional life, and their personal life where it impacts their professional life, are flirting with disaster.