How To Be a Truly Empathic Leader

Young stylish businessmanMost leaders who are driven, fast paced and focused on results rarely have the time or inclination to listen to others. And while their dynamic nature can be good for business, sometimes it can lead to trouble.

Take the case of Richard, a senior executive who many looked up to as a successful leader, one who consistently got results. While his competitive nature and bluntness would turn some of his colleagues away, nevertheless he was a solid contributor to the bottom line, and his managers tended to overlook his faults.

But time was running out for him. His current manager, Marilyn, the CEO of the company had seen enough of his sometimes brutal treatment of his staff and colleagues. She was determined that something had to be done to have Richard show more empathy towards others. In his most recent performance appraisal, she had laid it on the line for him – “focus on developing more empathy and less brashness, or else you will have to find employment elsewhere”. She told him that his lack of empathy was undermining team cohesiveness, and creating an environment where trust with him and within the team was being seriously eroded.

Marilyn offered him some help. A coach she had worked with in the past, and whom she greatly trusted, would meet with Richard and together they would work out a plan of action. While he didn’t particularly relish the thought of working with a coach, Richard decided to go along with her plan. So, later in the week he was introduced to Sam, a veteran coach who immediately struck Richard as someone who was passionate about their work.

Sam and Richard immediately got to work. It started with Sam telling Richard that certain understandings between them needed to be reached if the assignment was to be a success:

  1. Richard needed to be fully committed to the change
  2. He would need to seek out good role models he could learn from and emulate their behaviours
  3. He would need a mentor. Sam was willing to do this in the short term, but he would need to seek out a mentor after the assignment was finished.
  4. He would need to seek out opportunities to master the skills associated with empathy, and get feedback on his performance on a regular and timely basis.

Richard’s initial reaction was that these requirements were somewhat overkill. Isn’t being more empathic just a matter of listening more? What can be so hard about that? Sam decided to put him to the test. There was a management meeting coming up the following day, and Sam suggested sitting in on it to observe his behaviours and provide feedback. Basically a quick way to create a baseline to work from. Richard agreed.

At the meeting, Richard was his usual self: impatient, not fully engaged, abrasive at times, dismissive of others’ ideas. Sam was not surprised, as Marilyn had already described these behaviours as ones to watch out for. It felt to Sam that some of the other participants were expecting or hoping that Sam would intervene and “fix” Richard.

After the meeting the two got together to debrief. It wasn’t going to be easy. In that meeting, Sam asked Richard to recount what had happened at the management meeting. He replied that he felt it was a “good” meeting, as some ideas that were useless got taken off the table. A couple of decent ideas (one of them was his) got moved forward. Sam just listened patiently, then asked Richard how he thought the other participants might view the meeting. Richard responded that he wasn’t really interested in their view, as the meeting had mostly achieved it’s aim. Sam responded “I can see we have a lot of work to do. Let’s get going”

Over the next couple of months, Sam and Richard worked on the problem. Sam shared with Richard the following principles that would be put to use as the coaching progressed:

  1. There can be no influence without rapport. Sam would be demonstrating how to get into and maintain rapport with others. Rapport is an essential element in all relationships, including the coaching relationship between the two of them, but most importantly between Richard and his colleagues.
  2. The benefits of higher levels of empathy and rapport, and the risks of not establishing those higher levels need to be understood.
  3. The success or failure would be measured by feedback from Richard’s colleagues and manager.
  4. Substantive improvement would need to be demonstrated within a very short time-frame, specifically two months.

Richard’s story ended well. He worked through the assessments and practice sessions that Sam gave him, sought regular feedback from his colleagues and Marilyn, and took corrective action where necessary. It wasn’t easy for him, but he gradually regained the trust of his colleagues, and although he would slip into his old behaviours every now and then, they were quick to point it out to him and help him get back on track.

He never lost his drive or competitiveness, always remembering Sam’s advice that “there can be no influence without rapport”. He became quite the influencer, never forgetting that influence is a two-way street…to influence you need to remain open to being influenced!