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.