When Empathy Leaves the Room

Empathy is a word being highlighted as an essential part of successful 21st Century organizations and a key element of good leadership. I think it is safe to say that we wouldn’t get too many arguments about that. And, I think that for the most part we also understand what the word empathy really means.

To  me though,  there is a great difference between understanding what empathy means on a between-the-ears basis and achieving an appreciation deep enough to more easily put ourselves in another person’s place and respond appropriately.

You may ask, why is it important to go deeper?  Well, let me try to address that question by describing a place where empathy did not live. I’m not sure if it ever lived there but if it did, somewhere along the way, it simply left the room… probably in disgust.

It was in the early seventies. I was a clerk for the foreign exchange Trading section of a major bank. I didn’t normally spend all of my day in the Trading Room. In fact, my desk was usually on another floor but, on this one occasion, the computers were down and I was required to actually sit in the Trading Room recording transactions manually and balancing them at the end of the day.

The Foreign Exchange Trading Room was a highly charged place. Split second transactions made the difference between profit and loss, win and lose. The atmosphere constantly buzzed with activity. I was there for a week and my job was mundane enough to afford me the luxury of sitting, mostly unnoticed, as the Traders went about their jobs and interacted with each other.

The Chief Trader was a middle-aged, somewhat round, somewhat balding fellow with a big booming voice and an ego to match. He shouted a lot. He swore a lot. His temper was unprecedented. I watched as he blasphemed and cursed his way from one end of the day to the next. I watched as he threw his telephone viciously against the console of his desk and launch himself into a full-blown temper tantrum because someone had failed to yield to his demand.

I watched as some in the room became withdrawn, trying to get through the day without being a target for a sarcastic or derogatory remark. I noticed too, those who followed the Chief Trader’s lead and behaved obnoxiously and without thought toward each other and people who entered the room simply to deliver things or take things away.

In among all of this toxic air was Elsie. Elsie was the Gold Trader. Her permanent desk was in the Trading Room along with the others. There were two other women in the room but Elsie was the eldest. I expect she might have been about fifty. Small and refined and perhaps a little plain (by Trading Room Standards anyway), she went about her work with diligence and in quiet dignity. During my stay in the Trading Room, hardly a day went by when someone did not make a deeply embarrassing remark toward Elsie, especially about her age and appearance. Elsie seemed to bear all of this abuse, allowing the words thrown at her to roll off her back. But looks are indeed deceiving and the words were wounding. No one seemed to understand or care how Elsie might be feeling. They expected her to go along with the “joke”. And she did. None of us really knows what it must have cost her.

The other two women in the room chose to behave like the men. They swore a lot too. They too, made sarcastic remarks to each other and to anyone else who was in range. People outside the Trading Room thought them hard and bitter and perhaps they were, but I suspect they were just trying to survive because they had no hope of ever being understood.

My time in the Trading Room ended with my feeling a great sense of relief. There were a lot of dysfunctional things going on in the room that week but I think the source of them all could easily be attributed to the fact that the working environment was devoid of any kind of empathy. And, when empathy leaves the room, it has a way of taking dignity, respect and civility with it.

In these times, there are rules and edicts meant to govern and guard against the kind of behaviour described here but, to me, 21st Century leaders can really only be truly successful if they are willing to stand in another’s shoes as a matter of common practice; seek to feel, understand and simply care, without the prod that such rules produce.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

 

*Note: This is a refreshed version of the original post written in 2010

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The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century

I’ve always loved language. Admittedly, my facility in it is sadly limited to English, a few French words and phrases, body language (on a good day) and oh yes, a little pig Latin. But, what I love about language is its power to shape ideas, create images, evoke emotion and give birth to new habits and traditions.

In organizations, language also has the power to determine what matters. For instance, the language of the 20th Century stressed, among other things, the importance of control, competition, individual targets, winning, losing and results. And while many of these words allude to activities that continue to be important, there is other language creeping into the 21st Century landscape that will affect our behaviour and change the way we go about things.

To some, this language is associated with the softer side of life. In the past, It has often been derided and dismissed as being too ethereal or without merit in the workplace. But, as this new century unfolds, language like this will re-shape what matters and reveal its harder edge as we put it into practice.

So, what specifically am I talking about? Well, no doubt you will have heard and used the words. But because I often think it’s easy to use words without really understanding what they mean or how they might be used in any sort of practical way, I thought I’d have a go at bringing them into the light if only for the sake of provoking your own thoughts about their applicability in these highly challenging times. Words, after all, have a way of being open to interpretation and I’m sure you will have yours. But, for what it’s worth here are mine:

The first word is Empathy. To me, empathy in action looks like this. You and I are sharing our viewpoints over a particular issue. It is a difficult conversation. What I’m hearing from you sounds foreign and unlikely and yet I want to make sense of what you are saying. So I stop. I let my ego and my belief that I am right go, and I step into your shoes. I do that by asking questions and exploring the issue from your perspective. I seek to see what you see. In so doing I search for what you might be feeling and when I find it, I begin to understand what it’s like to be there. In short, empathy is about understanding. But just to be clear, it is not necessarily about agreeing.

Here are some other key words that come to mind:

Inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel they belong; are valued and respected. Including people means asking their opinions frequently; trusting them to take the lead in situations where their strengths will better serve the purpose; acknowledging their contributions sincerely and often.

Self-awareness is about knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, behaviours and attitudes well enough to understand our impact on those around us and how effective, or perhaps ineffective, it is in certain situations.

Cultural awareness is about the values, beliefs and perceptions that are part of the organization and the people who work in it. Organizations with an enduring culture will be ones that align their activities and practices with their values and beliefs. These values and beliefs are brought alive through action and thought; in their approach to the customer; in their hiring practices and in the kind of business they choose to conduct.

Diversity is about achieving a real appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the world and it’s people. To me, embracing diversity means appreciating, understanding, valuing and using our differences to enhance the work and create something greater than we might otherwise do by behaving divisively and out of ignorance or fear.

Openness is about being truthful and giving people the information and resources they need to do their jobs. It also reminds me of the critical need to be receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources and people. In the last century, information was often used as a power tool by a few against the many. Today, I think that power is at its most effective when it is collectively held and willingly shared.

Adaptability in this century will be key to not only successful organizations but ones that simply seek survival as well. This is about learning to accept change as an every day occurrence as opposed to an event that must be planned and carefully managed. It speaks to the necessity to be continually reading, questioning and challenging the current environment. Today becomes yesterday in the blink of an eye. I think that those who learn fast and change faster will do better in these times than those who don’t.

Collaboration speaks to the need to work together for a common purpose. The 20th Century organization was rife with silos and walls that provoked, or perhaps encouraged, internal competition and rivalries. Now it’s time to build bridges between people and lines of business; to eschew hoarding behaviour and learn to share ideas and resources for a purpose that will be of service to everyone involved

These are just eight words that I think, when put into action, will define leadership, and organizational life, in the years to come. There are, of course, others. But, my point is that the more we use this language, and seek to understand its meaning and application, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges that this century presents.

What do you think? What words come to mind for you when you think about leadership today? What do they mean to you? How will they affect the way we work?

Note: This post was originally published in October 2010

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Taking a Look at Command, Control and Authority

I once had a boss who was  a real “my way or the highway” kind of guy. He was a stickler for punctuality and his need for control was so strong that he posted one of his managers at the elevators each morning armed with a clipboard and orders to write down the names of all those unsuspecting stragglers who deigned to arrive past the expected starting time.

One morning I peered over the shoulder of one of these hapless managers only to see that, having caught someone alighting from the elevator at 9:02 a.m., he had written, “girl with red hair and green sweater”

I asked him how he expected to create anything that the boss would find useful if he didn’t know the names of the people he was there to “catch”. He said,

“I have no *f*&*%! idea. I’m just doing what I’m told”

That is a classic consequence of creating and working in a Command and Control culture. It assumes that the person in charge is the holder of all wisdom, skill and experience; a person who knows exactly what they are doing at all times and the Mecca to which everyone bows. And the rest of us simply do as we are told.

Except we don’t.

In fact, while we are doing as we are told, we are also finding ways to quietly sabotage progress. We waste time grumbling. We call in sick when we are just too fed up to go in. We arrive on time but then do nothing for the first hour. We spend time dreaming up other ways to get around the stringent rules set out for us; and somewhere in all of that, productivity, dignity, a sense of accomplishment, and of purpose, are lost.

So no, Command and Control in a business or organizational environment is not a leadership style that serves us any more… at least not in large doses.

Having said that there are situations that will call for an authoritative approach to leadership. For example:

  • In times of revolutionary change when the future feels doubtful, this take-charge style is needed, and often appreciated, to help people over the hump of uncertainty.
  • When under tight deadlines or in crises, there often just isn’t time for lengthy debate or consensus building.
  • When the leader has more knowledge around a certain issue and it just makes sense for him or her to make a decision for everyone.
  • When the organization has drifted from its purpose or lost sight of its vision a strong authoritative presence is required to recalibrate organizational focus.

So, in short, while we love to hate Command and Control, we would be wise to allow that there are times when authoritative leadership is necessary. The trouble is, if not used well, it can easily morph into something that fails to serve the organization or the greater good. So, like the delicate balance of a perfect stew, the application of control and authority must be carefully measured and administered to render it both useful and palatable.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post originally published in 2011

 

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Successful Leadership ~ The Story of a Man

I wrote this post in 2010.  Being part of this retirement celebration reminded me that when it comes right down to it, it is our humanity and what we do with it that makes the difference between success and failure.  Nothing else really seems to matter that much.

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The other evening I attended a retirement celebration for a former colleague.  It was a wonderful gathering, a room packed full of people who were there because they genuinely liked and respected the man who was about to embark on the next phase of his life.

In his business career, the man did not rise to the top of the executive ladder.  Nor, I would hazard to say, did he make lots of money or enjoy an opulent lifestyle.  He may not even be widely known to people much beyond his immediate sphere of influence.  But his impact has been felt. He is successful.  He is a leader.

Throughout the course of the evening, many people got up to speak.

His bosses praised his leadership in community activities; his ability to galvanize his local workforce; and his good humour and cheerful disposition.  Those bosses, who were younger than he, thanked him for his guidance and mentorship.

His colleagues spoke about lifelong friendship; told stories of the fun they had together and how they all managed to work hard in spite of their youthful exuberance.

His staff thanked him for his support and guidance.  While they were happy for him as he moved on to other things, they were sad too, as they told their own stories of meeting challenges together; overcoming obstacles; achieving goals; and yes, having fun all along the way.

His sons told stories of their life as they grew up.  The stories were witty and poignant and full of pride.  They were two young men who had grown up to be fine, funny and thoughtful, two young men who thanked their parents for giving them a good start in life.

When it was his turn, the man did not talk about his accomplishments at all.  Instead, he spoke with pride about the accomplishments of others, especially his children. He talked about the constant love and support he received from his wife. He talked about what he had learned over the course of his career and from whom.  He made many self-deprecating remarks.  And he said thank you…a lot.

Much has been written about the characteristics of successful leadership and while I certainly think there are core elements associated with it, there are other lessons in there somewhere. Like:

Successful Leadership is not formulaic.  It is open to interpretation and it requires the involvement of the whole self.

For instance, while we know that good communication is key to good leadership, how we communicate to get the desired result will vary depending on the leader. The man was successful because he did not pretend to be anyone else.  His communication style included fun, laughter and humility.  It worked for him simply because it is who he is.

And:

Successful Leadership is more about love than we would like to admit.

Okay, I can feel people cringing as they read this because injecting the word love into a business environment starts to feel a bit, um, ethereal.  But, there are all kinds of love…love of challenge; love of ideas; love of people; love of good honest work.  And, it is this love that carries successful leaders through thick and thin.

At this retirement party there was indeed love, and respect, for the man who for thirty-five years, took all of himself with him wherever he went.

So, imagine your own retirement party. What do you want people to say about you?  What kind of memories do you want to have? What do you want to give? What will it take for you to get what you want?

Think about it.  And, if you feel so inclined, I’d love to hear what you come up with.

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5 Principles for Building Highly Effective Teams…Lessons from the Snowbirds

I love the Snowbirds, no, not the ones that migrate in their RVs every winter to warmer climes, but the The Canadian Forces Snowbirds.

I love them because apart from putting on a pretty spectacular show, they offer a clear demonstration of what can happen when you get collaboration and teamwork right.   The truth is, they have to get it right. Lives depend on it.

In most organizations, the necessity for getting it right is less dire.  However, the extent to which we work effectively together usually dictates our capacity and potential for success. And so, I think there is something to be learned from precision flying teams like the Snowbirds.

While I have only had the opportunity to observe them in action at an air show, these observations put me in mind of some principles that might very well apply to all highly functioning and effective teams.  So here they are:

Principle #1: Choosing team members carefully is vital to team success

In order to achieve optimal team performance, choosing the right participants is critical to getting the team off the ground. To do that, those decisions need to include very precise specifications around skill, experience, values, behaviour and potential. Poor choices can lead to some disappointing results at the very least.  Indeed, a poor choice made for the Snowbird Squadron has the capacity for a disastrous result.

Principle #2: Each team member must be clear about the team purpose and his or her purpose within the team.

It is the job of the leader to ensure that each team member knows why the team exists; what the team must achieve; and his or her role within the team.  Lack of clarity creates confusion and places team members out of alignment with each other and with their overall purpose.

Principle #3: Those on the ground are as important as those in the air

In most organizations there are those who are more visible than others.  These are the stars, the ones who are highly skilled in one particular area of the team’s work.   It is easy to assume that these people are the team.  However, those in the air can only be there if they have the benefit of the skill and knowledge provided by those on the ground.  For instance, there are nine CT-114 Tutor jets in the Snowbird fleet.  Each plane has its own dedicated technician who ensures his/her plane will fly safely and optimally for the pilot.   In other words, nine pilots in the air cannot do their jobs safely or well without the support of the rest of the team no matter how skilled they may be.

Principle #4: The team is always evolving

In any team, team members come and go.  Every time a new member joins the team, its dynamic changes and those who remain are charged with responsibility of supporting, training and integrating those who join.

A Snowbird pilot is assigned to the squadron for three years.  After that he is typically reassigned.  The turnover is planned in such a way that the more experienced pilots play a role in the indoctrination and training of the new ones.  In this way, the team continues to grow in depth and maturity while keeping the experience fresh for everyone.

Principle #5: Trust is the glue that binds highly effective teams together

I would suggest that in a team such as the Snowbirds, the absence of trust would keep them all grounded.  This is also true of other teams in other organizations and that makes building trust among team members a very big deal.

After all, no one would be able to fly like this without it:

That’s what I think anyway.  What do  you think?

*Originally published in October, 2011

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*Leadership ~ Four Ways to Keep It Real

Authenticity in leadership is a hot topic these days.  In fact, we read about it so often and hear it expressed in other media so much that I fear it is in danger of becoming one of those dreaded buzzwords.

To me though, authentic is something we strive to be.  There is no piece of software or manual that gives instructions on how to become an authentic leader.  It’s a personal thing.  And, somewhere along the way, we have to figure out how we turn the being of it into the doing.

The question is, in a world full of complexity, politics, big ideas and yes, even skullduggery, what can we do to ensure that we keep it real?

Here are some thoughts on that.

Stay grounded by making the work more important than ourselves

The ego, while an important and oft maligned part of the human psyche, has a propensity to grow to outlandish proportions with only the slightest encouragement if not tempered by a measure of humility.  Staying grounded is about remembering our core purpose; focusing on the work and on the people who must carry it out.  Ego trips can be personally satisfying but they are extravagances that most leaders can no longer afford.

Represent our values honestly. Practice them. Reinforce them.

Most organizations have stated values.  Values outline what is important.  They form part of the organizational culture.  Authenticity demands that those values are not only talked about but also enacted… every day. However, I think we can agree that talking about values is a great deal easier than living them.

For example  IBMAT&T and Exxon Mobil all sponsored the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta Georgia in 2012.  The Augusta National Golf club is a particularly prestigious one. It is also a place where some pretty powerful CEOs conduct business so membership is not just about golf.  Also, in 2012, women were prohibited from membership in this club.

This presented something of a dilemma in the size and shape of Virginia Rometty, CEO of IBM.  At Augusta National it is tradition to present the CEO of a Masters tournament sponsor with membership to the club.   In Ms Rometty’s case no such offering was made.  From the perspective of the golf club, this conformed to their organizational values, whether we agree with them or not.  But, their decision to exclude the CEO of IBM would seem to fly in the face of the diversity that the sponsoring companies purport to value in their respective organizations.

This might have been a prime opportunity to act in alignment with a value they each say they espouse. And yet, they said nothing and did nothing.  To me, that puts the authenticity of their value of diversity into question. Simply put, if we choose to say one thing and do another, we are going to come up short in the keeping it real department.

Be mindful of the assumptions we make

We all make assumptions.  Sometimes we make decisions based on them with no adverse consequences.  Sometimes we assume certain things about people and we are right.  However, there are many more times when our assumptions are totally wrong.   When that happens and we take action based on what we think we know, that’s when reality can easily get away from us.  Keeping it real means that we stop from time to time and question the assumptions we are working from.

Make clarity and accuracy in communication a priority

Part of keeping it real is ensuring that the information we share with one another is useful and accurate.  Lots of things get in the way of that.  For instance, the flow of information can easily get snagged on grapevines where it becomes distorted and no longer reliable.  Some people too, believe that information is a commodity reserved for only a certain few.  While this may be true of some things, in the main, shared knowledge helps people do their jobs better, fuels new ideas and ensures that people are acting on something real.   Here’s an example of how failing to provide clear and accurate information can actually take you way off course.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

*This is a refreshed version of an April 2012 post 

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* Putting the “Constructive” into Criticism

Winston Churchill once said; “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

I really think this is a good way to look at it regardless of whether you are the criticism giver or receiver.  But, there is criticism… and then there is criticism.

Most leaders like to preface the word ‘criticism’ with the word ‘constructive’.  That makes its aim one of building rather than tearing down.  However, not all carry out the ‘constructive’ part well, which usually means the ‘criticism’ part is prone to cause an already “unhealthy state of things” to deteriorate even further.

So how do we make sure the criticism we deliver is going to be worthwhile for those on the receiving end to hear and consider?

Well, I think before we proceed to offer criticism, we must first put ourselves under some scrutiny by addressing our intent. For instance:

Why do I feel the need to criticize? ~ Criticizing constructively must carry with it an equally constructive purpose.  If, for instance, my criticism of you comes out of anger, frustration or another negative emotion then I’m using it to vent not to make things better.  So, first I must determine how my criticism might serve you in some way.

What, or who, am I concerned about? ~Similarly, if my criticism of you will make me feel better, then I’m probably doing it for the wrong reason.   Caring about people you lead often includes pointing out things to them that they cannot see for themselves.  In other words the focus of criticism needs to be on enlightenment not on wielding power over another.

Am I prepared to listen? ~ When we offer criticism it is usually because we have a concern about someone’s behaviour, performance, or both.  We draw conclusions based on what we observe, what we experience, and what others tell us.  However, to make criticism useful to people on the receiving end, they have to know that we are willing to hear from them too.  Otherwise the information on which we base our judgment will be incomplete and in danger of being wrong, misconstrued, rationalized away or ignored.

Once we are satisfied that our criticism carries with it a constructive intent, I also think it important to remember this:

Criticizing another person’s behaviour or performance is not a ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ proposition ~ There are many ways to offer constructive criticism.  Some people recommend beginning with something positive; moving on to the negative; and then finishing with something else positive (popularly known as the crap sandwich). I’m not a big fan of that because, even with the best of intent, using a prescribed method of delivery can come across as contrived, even condescending.

For me, sincerity is the only thing that matters, even if the delivery is a little rough.

Abraham Lincoln said, “ He has a right to criticize who has a heart to help

To me, that says it all.  What do you think?

*Originally published, October 14, 2012

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