More than a decade ago, as H. James Wilson writes in the Harvard Business Review, Daniel Goleman found that “nearly 90% of the difference between outstanding and average leaders is attributable to emotional factors, not intellectual acumen.” And yet, there’s still very little value (by value, I mean investment) placed on developing these skills, most often bucketed as emotional intelligence (EQ).
We could go down the rabbit hole of emotional intelligence because it’s a deep one, or I could just name the elephant I’m focused on these days. Where I’m seeing a lot of need is the EQ ‘du jour’: empathy.
Why empathy? Because it has the ability to make a material difference in how leaders lead and people respond. When people feel like their boss knows them, they feel cared for and heard; it translates to inspired and motivated employees. Their trust increases. Creativity increases. Most importantly, people who feel cared about, feel safe. They feel like they matter and that their work has purpose.
If this charged political environment has given us anything, it is countless opportunities to care more. When people see fear, uncertainty and audacity pummeling the daily headlines and news stations, opportunities abound for leaders to flex their empathy. And when your people are barely coping, it impacts your team and your organization.
But what if it’s not your nature as a leader to engage in “those” kinds of issues? In my coaching practice, it’s not uncommon for me to hear a leader say “I keep work and personal issues separate,” or “I don’t want to pry.” I get it; except that our world is overflowing with 24/7 noise, news and distraction (that was true before the election) and people are struggling to make sense of it.
It’s in these moments when the red flag the leader just raised is flashing like a cheap Vegas motel sign, and I have to shut my eyes to keep from getting a migraine. Not because I’m judging or disagree with the leader’s approach. It’s more to do with the fact that the leader has a significant amount of work to do, and he or she doesn’t know it.
A leader’s impact is mighty. And having a clear understanding of your organization’s revenue drivers and your own power and influence is the cause of the effect of good leadership. Your job is to inspire people to achieve your business’ goals, and your success depends on it.
The reason I’m not judging isn’t because of my saintly level of empathy. Not at all. It’s because I used to say the same thing. And I remember the exact time in my life when that changed.
A decade ago, no one would have mistaken me for someone who was highly empathetic. I cared, but not enthusiastically. But during that time, I had a daily opportunity to walk in anothers shoes. I married someone who didn’t think like me or respond like me, who handled things differently than I would and made decisions differently than I could. Without going into a dissertation of detail, I learned that I had to care more in order to be successful. I leaned in as far as I could, but it wasn’t enough. For a variety of reasons, the marriage failed.
But what I took away was a gift that changed my life. I gained a greater understanding of what it means to care more, even when you think you can’t. I learned about my own self-awareness and self-management. And it’s because of that, I’m able to be the coach I am today. Without having walked through that experience, I could not do what I do.
So, as I ask myself, what would happen if more leaders were of the mindset to know a little more about their people, and care a little more about their needs and showcase their strengths to give them opportunities for success. Could that have a material impact on the world?
I think so. And here are three insights I think can help develop leaders’ lean-in to empathy:
1. Know more. Do you know what’s most important to each of your team members? Not what you think is, but what actually is most important? If you don’t, how can you support them in achieving their goals in their careers and in their lives – let alone, giving their best to you? How do you know how to motivate them?
2. Care more. Once I was having a conversation at a crowded restaurant with a prominent leader. He said, “You know Teri, you make me feel like I’m the only one in the room.’” I asked him to elaborate. He said, “Because you’re not distracted, you maintain eye contact and you ask great questions.’”(This was prior to becoming an executive coach.) The learning here is simple. We are all distracted. But when you’re meeting with a team member, or an employee or with anyone for that matter, focus. Help that person feel, that to you, they’re the most important person in the room.
3. Showcase more. When you know what’s important to your team members, and what they are really good at and enjoy doing, it’s easy to help them shine. Look for opportunities outside of your group where they can showcase specific strengths that are needed and will benefit the greater organization. Identify opportunities to help them grow as a leader and as a person.
A few weeks ago, Seth Godin challenged his readers with the goal of making something more civilized every day, with every action. “Our work as individuals and as leaders becomes worthwhile and generous when we add to our foundation of civilization instead of chipping away at it.”
The world is rife with opportunities to show empathy. So, the next time you hear yourself say, “I can only imagine what you’re going through,” stop and challenge yourself: Can you really? Or is that just lip-service?