Imagine the remotest tropical utopian island.
It is the island that is the coveted dream of every leader ,because on that island lies the formula to understand what success means…….?
What success means, to each of your Team members?
You yearn for that formula because if you have it ,you hold the key to authentically connecting with your team
Now imagine a raft. The raft will get you to that island, to the secret formula
That raft is empathy .
Now imagine sharks, yes great whites. Aka negative emotions and biases ,these are what the waters are full of.
They are trying to devour you or destroy your raft and then devour you.
An alternate term that I will use for those sharks is empathy killers.
Empathy killers are behaviors(fuelled by negative emotions and biases) that threaten your raft , the build of it , the existence of it.
The more you use or let these empathy killers exist in a working relationship the stronger will be the current of apathy that will take you away from the island , from making an authentic connection with someone in/outside your team.
Reflecting back on instances where I have been eaten by the sharks or I have fed someone to the sharks , I want to share the following empathy killers
Whenever as a leader you exercise any these behaviors ,empathy dies a little death.You drift away a little from that Team member who are struggling with their performance,from that peer with whom you are trying to mend fences, from that introverted person whom you can not convince about your strategy, from the business stakeholder who is failing to relate with the reasons why your Team can not keep their commitments.
This by no means is an exhaustive list , feel free to add your empathy killers to it .
- Asserting that your problems or the company’s problems are bigger and more complex than theirs (just because you operate at a higher hierarchy level in the business)
- Telling them that they don’t see the bigger picture (when they call out something which did not align with the company values charter pasted on the front door)
- Taking it personally and giving back in the same coin (angry emails from them at 8 in the evening are responded by angry emails at 8:35 )
- Raising things that they need to improve only when you are about to say no to something.
- Not being there due to lack of time.
- There but pretending to listen .
[ Bonus material — What listening level are you at ? https://hbr.org/2016/07/what-great-listeners-actually-do ]
- Assessing their performance from a different lens than them. Especially without telling them which lens you are wearing and when?
- Comparing. Yes ,comparing full stop. Comparing them with that high performing star in the Team as a means to justify your decision.
- Quoting your (legitimately) vast (but invalid or unrelatable) experience to win the argument .
e.g. Because you have not worked at <x> you can not understand this.
- Using glass half-empty as a motivation methodology .Corollary -> Also instilling fear of the glass being half empty, fear that it must not be broken, must not be filled with the wrong content or not being the type of vessel that you expected.
For a moment ,forgo metrics,forget numbers,forgo strategy,forget vision….just reflect on what your number one duty as a people leader is,
To create an emotionally safe environment where you can genuinely connect with your Team to understand what success means to them and where they can fearlessly connect with you to understand from where you are coming from.
Empathy, like charity begins at home . Start by being empathetic to your own emotions first, acknowledging them, questioning them, detecting patterns and then doing something about them.
I don’t claim to hold the secret formula from The Utopian island but I have started to know more about “my” great whites, learning to out maneuver them, learning to keep the raft safe.