Tag Archives: Empathy

Crossing the Finish Line

060812_al_ablow_640So far, there have not been many really hot days in my neck of the woods this summer, but one such day recently reminded me of another summer day quite a few years ago.

I was nearing the end of my degree program, sitting, and sweating, over a particularly tough assignment. It was one I needed to submit prior to my final residency and graduation. I was hot and tired. And, because the subject matter was not a favourite, I was struggling. I wanted to quit. In fact, I remember saying to my husband something like, “I’ve had enough. I just want to give up. What made me think I could do this in the first place?”

He said something like, “I know it’s hard right now. But you’re not going to quit. You’re going to sit there and finish what you started because it’s important to you.”

Well, of course it was…so I did. But at that moment in time, I wanted to pack it all in and I needed someone who cared about me to give me a little push.

I expect we all, at one time or another, have experienced this kind of dwindling interest as the finish line comes into view.

At first, when we embark on a new project or business venture, we are full of enthusiasm, raring to go and dreaming of how it’s going to look, or be, when we have accomplished it. As time progresses, we encounter problems (or challenges, however you wish to express it). Things we imagine don’t quite manifest themselves according to expectations. We experience mission“drifts” and relationship“rifts”, disappointments, victories and defeats along the way. By the time we get close to the journey’s end, we wonder if we are going to make it. Exhaustion sets in and sometimes we start thinking about the next project before this one is done because the next project looks like so much more fun.

It’s not a unique scenario is it? The question for the leader is; how do you, not only get over the finish line but make sure that everyone else does too?

Well, we all have ideas about that I’m sure. Here are a few of mine:

Keep your eyes on the prize ~ When the going gets tough, I think it helps to remember the fundamental purpose of the project; why it was important when you started it and why it continues to be important as you work toward accomplishing it. Consider the tangible rewards that will come from having completed it and also how you’re going to feel when all is said and done.

Celebrate small successes ~ Sometimes a large project can create overwhelm that feels somewhat akin to a snake swallowing a pig. If, however, you were to break it down and take time to celebrate milestones along the way, it might be entirely more digestible and provide sufficient energy to keep going.

Make Time for Rest ~ to function optimally, the human engine requires rest. It is easy to get caught up in the demands of a critical project and tempting to work right through until it is done. However, doing so and expecting others to do so, without respite, is a mistake. We are at our best when rested and focused. The time we think we save by not resting is usually lost when our physical and mental energies go on the wane.

Exercise the empathy muscle ~ This means checking in with people along the way; acknowledging their challenges and the feelings that go along with working toward a collective goal. In other words, recognizing and relating to the emotional ups and downs that occur over the life of a project can be very reassuring. In truth, empathy and encouragement fuel the journey and can make the difference between giving up and going on.

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

 

Note: Originally published in the Summer of 2012

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Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, motivating & Inspiring

Getting at the Heart of Leadership

I wrote this post in September, 2011.  It was inspired  by the a story of a woman’s grief and the choices her employer made to deal with its impact on their workforce.  There are lessons here worth repeating.  

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“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”~ His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

I was thinking the other day about how easy it is, when first embarking on the leadership road to pack our authority and our sense of self-importance but leave little room in the bag for what it really takes to lead well ~ heart.

For the fledgling leader it’s an easy mistake to make. As fledglings, we often expect little from others, except maybe obedience.

I like to think that most of us grow out of it. Some people though, fledgling and seasoned alike, treat the leadership role like a game of monopoly. They have a strategy and goals. They deal in only that which they can hold in their hand or see on the bottom line. They buy and sell, trade and bargain. They strive to pass GO as often as possible so they can collect their $200 regularly. Their focus is singular, their intent only to finish the game with the greatest number of assets.

It is possible that these leaders believe their legacy will come from asset gathering alone. There are after all, some very wealthy and powerful people who have amassed their fortunes in just that way. So why bother to mess it up with emotion?

Well, simply put, human beings are emotional creatures. And, if we expect them to bring all of themselves to work and dedicate their energies to the success of our enterprises, we must also care about them.

Witness the case of Cecelia Ingraham.

Ms Ingraham worked as an Administrative Assistant for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey. She is also a mother whose teenaged daughter died. That kind of grief is unimaginable for most of us.

Her co-workers, although initially sympathetic, became uncomfortable around her because she talked about her daughter constantly, hung the girl’s ballet shoes in her cubicle and displayed her child’s photograph on her desk. Someone complained to the boss that Ms Ingraham’s behaviour was becoming disruptive, interfering with the work.

The story goes down hill from here, the bottom line of which is this. Ms Ingraham was told to remove the mementos of her daughter from her workstation; stop talking about her and, in fact, pretend that she had never existed.

There is more to this story, the outcome of which produced no winners at all. Money was no doubt spent in both accusing and defending. The twelve years of experience and the time Ms Ingraham spent learning and contributing to the company prior to her daughter’s death were lost. And there are others costs. Those who continue to work for this company will by now get the message that perhaps its best to leave part of themselves in a safe place at home. There is, after all no empathy waiting for them at work and no help when they really need it.

As Glenn Holland put it in Mr. Holland’s Opus, “Music is not just notes on a page”. Similarly leadership is not just about being in charge or numbers on a balance sheet.

So, if you are new leader by all means pack your self-confidence; be aware of, and use your authority but please leave plenty of room for your heart. If you are to be truly successful, you will need it. And so will everyone else.

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

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Filed under building awareness, Employee engagement, Human Resources, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

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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Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Organizational Effectiveness

Leadership and Crossing the Finish Line

There have not been many really hot days in my neck of the woods this summer, but one such day recently reminded me of another midsummer day quite a few years ago.

I was nearing the end of my degree program, sitting, and sweating, over a particularly tough assignment. It was one I needed to submit prior to my final residency and graduation.  I was hot and tired.  And, because the subject matter was not a favourite, I was struggling.  I wanted to quit.  In fact, I remember saying to my husband something like, “I’ve had enough. I just want to give up.  What made me think I could do this in the first place?”

He said something like, “I know it’s hard right now. But you’re not going to quit. You’re going to sit there and finish what you started because it’s important to you.”

Well, of course it was…so I did.  But at that moment in time, I wanted to pack it all in and I needed someone who cared about me to give me a little push.

I expect we all, at one time or another, have experienced this kind of dwindling interest as the finish line comes into view.

At first, when we embark on a new project or business venture, we are full of enthusiasm, raring to go and dreaming of how it’s going to look, or be, when we have accomplished it.  As time progresses, we encounter problems (or challenges, however you wish to express it). Things we imagine don’t quite manifest themselves according to expectations.  We experience mission“drifts” and relationship“rifts”, disappointments, victories and defeats along the way.  By the time we get close to the journey’s end, we wonder if we are going to make it.  Exhaustion sets in and sometimes we start thinking about the next project before this one is done because it looks like so much more fun.

It’s not a unique scenario is it?  The question for the leader is;  how do you, not only get over the finish line but make sure that everyone else does too?

Well, we all have ideas about that I’m sure.  Here are a few of mine:

Keep your eyes on the prize ~ When the going gets tough, I think it helps to remember the fundamental purpose of the project; why it was important when you started it and why it continues to be important as you work toward accomplishing it.  Consider the tangible rewards that will come from having completed it and also how you’re going to feel when all is said and done.

Celebrate small successes ~ Sometimes a large project can create overwhelm that feels somewhat akin to a snake swallowing a pig.  If, however, you were to break it down and take time to celebrate milestones along the way, it might be entirely more digestible and provide sufficient energy to keep going.

Make Time for Rest ~ to function optimally, the human engine requires rest.  It is easy to get caught up in the demands of a critical project and tempting to work right through until it is done.  However, doing so and expecting others to do so, without respite, is a mistake.  We are at our best when rested and focused.  The time we think we save by not resting is usually lost when our physical and mental energies go on the wane.

Exercise the empathy muscle ~ This means checking in with people along the way; acknowledging their challenges and the feelings that go along with working toward a collective goal.   In other words, recognizing and relating to the emotional ups and downs that occur over the life of a project can be very reassuring.  In truth, empathy and encouragement fuel the journey and can make the difference between giving up and going on.

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

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Filed under Employee engagement, Leadership, motivating & Inspiring, Uncategorized

Getting at the Heart of Leadership

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”~  His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

I was thinking the other day about how easy it is, on first embarking on the leadership road to pack our authority and our sense of self-importance but leave little room in the bag for what it really takes to lead well ~ heart.

For the fledgling leader it’s an easy mistake to make.  As fledglings, we often expect little from others, except maybe obedience.

I like to think that most of us grow out of it.  Some people though, fledgling and seasoned alike, treat the leadership role like a game of monopoly. They have a strategy and goals. They deal in only that which they can hold in their hand or see on the bottom line.  They buy and sell, trade and bargain. They strive to pass GO as often as possible so they can collect their $200 regularly.  Their focus is singular, their intent only to finish the game with the greatest number of assets.

It is possible that these leaders believe their legacy will come from asset gathering alone.  There are after all, some very wealthy and powerful people who have amassed their fortunes in just that way.  So why bother to mess it up with emotion?

Well, being a simple kind of person, I think the answer to that is simply that human beings are emotional creatures.  And, if we expect them to bring all of themselves to work and dedicate their energies to the success of our enterprises, we must also care about them.

Witness the case of Cecelia Ingraham.

Ms Ingraham worked as an Administrative Assistant for a pharmaceutical company in New Jersey.  She is also a mother whose teenaged daughter died.  That kind of grief is unimaginable for most of us.

Her co-workers, although initially sympathetic, became uncomfortable around her because she talked about her daughter constantly, hung the girl’s ballet shoes in her cubicle and displayed her child’s photograph on her desk.  Someone complained to the boss that Ms Ingraham’s behaviour was becoming disruptive, interfering with the work.

The story goes down hill from here, the bottom line of which is this.  Ms Ingraham was told to remove the mementos of her daughter from her workstation; stop talking about her and, in fact, pretend that she had never existed.

There is more to this story, the outcome of which produced no winners at all.  Money was no doubt spent in both accusing and defending.  The twelve years of experience and the time Ms Ingraham spent learning and contributing to the company prior to her daughter’s death were lost.  And there are others costs.  Those who continue to work for this company will by now get the message that perhaps its best to leave part of themselves in a safe place at home.  There is, after all no empathy waiting for them at work and no help when they really need it.

As Glenn Holland put it in Mr. Holland’s Opus,Music is not just notes on a page”.  Similarly leadership is not just about being in charge or numbers on a balance sheet.

So, if you are new leader by all means pack your self-confidence; be aware of, and use your authority but please leave plenty of room for your heart.  If you are to be truly successful, you will need it.  And so will everyone else.

What do you think?

15 Comments

Filed under building awareness, Employee engagement, Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Values

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.  For review, (and for fun), Audrey Hepburn defines it pretty well (Fred Astaire’s presumptions aside).

Somehow though, I think 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 effectively.

But why is it important to go deeper you may ask?  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 oldest.  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 about 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 week in the Trading Room ended with a relief that was palpable.  On reflection, there were a lot of dysfunctional things going on in the room that week but, to me, their source could all be traced to a room totally 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.

What do you think?

14 Comments

Filed under Building Relationships, communication, Employee engagement, organizational Development