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How Empathic Concern Helps Leaders in Crisis

 

There are three types of empathy, according to researchers.

  • Cognitive empathy or perspective-taking is the capacity to consider the world from another individual’s viewpoint.
  • Emotional empathy is the kind of empathy in which you physically feel the emotions of the person you are interacting with. You connect with someone in a way that you take on their emotions.  Emotional empathy makes someone well-attuned to another person’s inner emotional world.
  • “Empathic concern” is the kind of empathy that moves people to action, and is the motivation behind our efforts to reduce the suffering of another.

There is a growing dialogue about the importance of empathy, specifically, “empathic concern” in the business community.

Once marginalized as not relevant to the hardscrabble world of shareholder value and the bottom line, empathy is taking center stage. In part, because we are learning that we do ourselves and workplace culture a huge disservice by trying to wall off our emotional selves.  Empathic concern is like an activating agent in a chemical process. Its presence or absence makes or breaks interactions.

From the research (see below), we know empathy is related to leadership emergence and effectiveness, and empathic leaders have followers who experience less stress and have fewer physical symptoms. Indeed, leaders high in the empathy competency will be more successful at motivating and leading their employees, and helping their employees cope with workplace stresses. They will be more attuned to their customers’ wants, have higher customer satisfaction, and be more innovative.

Empathic Concern in Action…

Consider an HR leader in the Asian offices of a global tech company, charged with leading a reduction in workforce.  In late 2008 the economy was severely hit by the financial crisis and the technology sector suffered deep losses. At a large high visibility tech company, reports of impending layoffs created a contagion of anxiety.  The Asian offices were quickly immersed in tumult because Korean labor law makes it nearly impossible to lay workers off. It was unheard of.

However, the Korea VP embodied social intelligence and empathic concern. He had a great deal of self-awareness and felt enormous pain for the circumstances his employees were facing. When he started having one-on-one’s with those who were impacted, he intentionally decided he would be “real.” He set aside business script and simply met with his fellow co-workers honestly, revealing how profoundly he cared. He told them he would do his best to advocate for them in negotiating separation packages and other benefits such as outplacement services. During the one-on-one’s, he noticed that he was tearful, which was culturally unorthodox, especially during the negotiation of severance packages. Despite behavioral norms, he didn’t hold his feelings back.

What happened next was surprising.  Because he showed authentic empathic concern, employees were much less antagonistic.  In fact, the whole negotiation process got easier, and the laid off staff signed the separation documents.  There was still healing that needed to happen, but it was much less divisive than it might have been.  Employees remarked that they didn’t feel it was personal. They believed the VP was doing the best he could for them.  It was a powerful example of the importance of sincere empathic concern and humble leadership during organizational crisis.

Experiences such as a financial crisis and a major workforce reduction are leadership crucibles. The most extraordinary leaders, when faced with crises, take time to ask themselves what matters most. In this case, the leader felt what mattered most was the lives of the people he worked with.

References:

  1. Boyatzis, Richard E. “Possible contributions to leadership and management development from neuroscience.” Academy of Management Learning & Education 13, no. 2 (2014): 300-303.
  2. Goleman, Daniel, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee. Primal leadership: Unleashing the power of emotional intelligence. Harvard Business Press, 2013.

Recommended reading:

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. See our latest release: Empathy: A Primer for more insights on how this applies in leadership.

For personal interviews, see the Crucial Competence video series!

culture development

Culture Development: How to Cultivate People for Organizational Success

 

I love the cartoon in which a stalwart CEO sitting behind a desk says to his employee “I want a coherent new corporate culture that will take us into the third millennium and I want it by this afternoon.”

Indeed, culture is at the heart of competitive advantage, particularly when it comes to sustaining high performance. Yet, while business leaders recognize culture’s crucial role, research indicates that fewer than 10% of companies succeed in building a winning culture. 

Notably, there is often a blind spot when it comes to culture development.  Simply stated, it is nearly impossible to develop culture without developing ourselves, the people who make up the organizational culture. 

For precisely this reason, the new book, Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Culture is provocative reading.  In the book, Harvard researchers, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, deconstruct the cultural assumptions, norms, and behaviors of three highly successful companies who have charted a new and disruptive path to organizational success. Bridgewater, Next Jump, and Decurion provide examples of positive deviance when it comes to people and culture development.

These organizations see culture development as integral to their business success. Everyone, not just leaders or high potentials, in these organizations is engaged in personal developmental practices, such as minding the gaps between where they are currently and where they aim to be relative to any number of Emotional Intelligence Competencies, including Emotional Self-Control.

Kegan and Lahey are co-founders of Minds at Work, which helps individuals, teams, and organizations make personal and collective change. We spoke with a member of the Minds at Work leadership team, Co-Director,  Deborah Helsing. She shared the following illuminating stories of deliberately developmental organizations (DDO’s) and how they embed Emotional Intelligence skill building into their organizational cultures:

Bridgewater

At Bridgewater, an institutional fund management company, people talk openly and honestly about the pain that can be triggered by really looking at our own internal barriers and the root causes for why things happen at work. They refer to an equation to remind themselves and each other why they do this every day:  Pain + Reflection = Progress.

They even have an app that is standard issue on their company-provided iPads, “the Pain Button.”  This tool allows employees to record and share experiences of negative emotions at work—especially times when one’s ego defenses are activated by specific interactions with others. Open sharing of these experiences then triggers follow-up conversations among the parties as they seek to explore the truth of the situation and identify what individuals might do to directly address the underlying personal causes. This practice is aimed at helping people “get to the other side,” a Bridgewater term for working through ego defenses, neutralizing the sting of having your mindset questioned, and coming to actively manage forms of emotional self-protection that will otherwise be barriers to personal growth. 

Next Jump

Next Jump, an e-commerce company, upholds the belief system behind its culture with the equation: Better Me + Better You = Better US. By broadening the notion of a “learning organization,” Everyone Culture makes the case that any workplace can be a site of deep personal development (especially Emotional Intelligence).

The onboarding process at Next Jump gives new employees a very intense introduction to the organizational culture. Because that culture differs so markedly from that of other organizations, Next Jump has found that helping people adapt as soon as they start work is the easiest time to accelerate their growth. 

For their first three weeks, all new employees including those who come with years of experience and success, and who are moving into senior leadership positions attend what Next Jump calls “Personal Leadership Boot Camp,” or PLBC for short.  The program starts with participants learning to identify their character weaknesses, what Next Jump calls their “backhands.” The metaphor comes from tennis.  Everyone has strengths (our forehand), but in order to be a great tennis player, you cannot  rely solely on your forehand.  You must also work on your backhand, the areas where you feel less comfortable, less natural, or less skillful.

Another practice at Next Jump is The Situational Workshop (SW), which leaders of the company believe is among the most effective things they do.  Every week for two hours, five people meet: two different pairs of Talking Partners come together with a more experienced colleague acting as a mentor-coach. Charlie Kim, founder of Next Jump, identifies what he thinks makes this kind of weekly workshop structure powerful:

At this weekly workshop, each of the four of you describe some challenge you’ve met at work in the week and what you’ve done to meet it, or not. You might not be sure if how you handled the situation was optimal or not. The mentor-coach is there to encourage you to reach a higher level of self-awareness, so that you might identify new options for responding to similar future challenges and so avoid reacting in the same old way…. Over time, you see people growing immensely from these weekly sessions. 

As Charlie explains about the SW’s purpose, the focus is “on the training of judgment, rather than on technical training.” As a result, the discourse and pace of a SW can be a bit surprising to a first-time observer. People are identifying “problems of practice,” snags they run into, but the coach’s response is rarely direct problem-solving. All Next Jump’s practices are geared to help people change from the inside out. Solving problems too quickly, without the benefit of uncovering underlying assumptions means You won’t change. If you don’t change, you are most likely going to be reproducing new versions of the same problem you think you’ve already solved.

What it takes

Many workplaces attempt to foster the growth of their employees, but few are deliberately organized to put employee growth at the very center of their mission like these organizations do. Kegan and Lahey describe three dimensions of DDO’s that reinforce one another. Edge, home, and groove. These refer to taking risks in working on a skill that involves self-management (edge), for example, while having the benefit of trustworthy communities (home) and regular practices and routines to establish new habits (groove). These three dimensions’ closely mirror Boyatzis’ Intentional Change Theory, which emphasizes the importance of experimentation and practice within a safe community.

The takeaway here is that wherever you are in your work life you can begin to make meaningful progress toward your own development. For example, find a peer who has a similar intention to strengthen the Emotional Self-Awareness and Emotional Self-Control competencies. Be willing to be vulnerable with one another about the real challenges inherent in change, and look at our own shadows. Commit to weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to build the muscles of EI over time. This small yet powerful step can yield profound results.

If you are a manager or supervisor, you could create your own DDO team. Make time in team meetings to engage in EI skill building. Foster a team culture of non-judgement and psychological safety allowing people to bring their full selves, including growing edges out into the open within the team. Provide meaningful, positive feedback and celebrate small increments of change.

Recommended reading:

Developing Emotional Intelligence competencies is one of the best ways to facilitate culture development in your organization.

Our new series of primers was created by bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman, along with fellow thought leaders in EI, research, and leadership development.

You can find the first 3 in the series available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, and Adaptability.

attention-span-self-awareness

Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

attention-span-self-awareness

Improve Your Attention Span Through Self-Awareness

By Ann Flanagan Petry

“You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.” – Rumi

In the workplace, we often fall into just the trap that Rumi describes. We think that because we understand how to be busy accomplishing tasks (one) we also understand how to be effective in our work (two). So, we focus on agendas, “to do” lists, and clearing out our in-box. But when we do that, we are missing out on the quiet yet critical, “and” in the equation: the powerful force of mindful self-awareness.

Attention span is the length of time you’re able to concentrate on a single activity before becoming distracted. The longer you’re able to sustain attention, the more likely you are to gain depth and quality in things like learning or creating. This impacts work and life in a myriad of ways, from increasing productivity to being able to express the best of what we have to offer. But how can we improve our attention span effectively?

Self-Awareness is a Verb

Self-awareness is often referred to as a static state within leadership competencies: “he has self-awareness.” In other words, he has met this competency and we can check “goal met.” However, it is important to recognize self-awareness is really more of a verb and refers to an ongoing process. To understand this more fully, take a moment and tune-in to your own mind and body right now… What do you notice? Indeed, recognizing what is happening in any given moment – from the inside out – can be a bit of a shock. Someone once described it as hearing one insult after another. Others have said it was like an endless barrage of complaints… what isn’t working… what isn’t good enough. Beyond being aware of the internal narrator, we might notice other things, like the tension we are holding in our bodies or the incessant urge to stay busy – to be productive.  This is self-awareness. Remarkably, our inner experience is ever changing and shifting. Awareness of this reality is at the heart of the self-awareness competency.

The Challenge of Continuous Partial Attention

In fact, the cultivation of the competency of self-awareness is becoming more critical for 21st century leaders. To understand just how important, consider the increasing regularity of lack of self-awareness occurring in daily life. Linda Stone coined the term Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). Stone, a former Silicon Valley executive, honed her leadership skills at both Apple and Microsoft. She discovered this from observing leaders all around her. Continuous Partial Attention coupled with fear of missing out (FOMO) is the new normal. We take our smart phones out at the slightest hint of a wait, whether it’s at the grocery store or the stoplight. Both terms describe a recent human phenomenon: a constant state of anxiety and hyper-vigilance to attend to texts, social media, and email… all at the same time!

To demonstrate this further, a survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found.  Attention span was defined as “the amount of concentrated time on a task without becoming distracted.”  Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft believes human attention is “the true scarce commodity” of the near future.  Daniel Goleman describes the impact of “the impoverishment of attention” in his book, Focus, The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

Self-Awareness as an  Inner-Rudder

Notably, according to Goleman, “self-awareness, particularly accuracy in decoding the internal cues of our body’s murmurs, holds the key” and is an inner-rudder that can bring us back to deepening attention. As a result, numerous organizations are explicitly coaching and training employees in awareness skill-building. The organizations range from multinational corporations to city governments.

Inspired by the work of neuroscience researcher, Richard J. Davidson and his vision to “imagine a world where we could improve our capacity to pay attention by even 5%,” Sara Flitner, former Mayor of Jackson, Wyoming, together with the support and funding of the Wellness Department at St. John’s Medical Center (SJMC)  partnered with the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Center for Healthy Minds to offer research-based practices in well-being and leadership development. Together, they undertook a community-wide initiative to bring this content and learning to elected officials, school administrators, as well as hospital and town leaders.

Also of note, a large professional services firm engaged the Center for Healthy Minds to train hundreds among its leadership ranks. Michele Nevarez, a positive organizational development consultant and adjunct faculty with the Wisconsin School of Business helped facilitate the neuroscience-based leadership training for Jackson’s leaders and the firm. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Nevarez believes the sessions met a critical need of bringing key stakeholders together to apply practices that strengthen attentional focus and promote renewal. This can help to combat the daily information overload and allow for better coping with the stresses of everyday life, which if left unmanaged can undermine well-being.

The challenge of Continuous Partial Attention and information overload is a common and tremendously difficult problem that is growing with each new wave of technological capabilities. Yet, we are discovering people are adaptive and have agency to choose how and what to pay attention to.

Try this:

Choose a time of day, or trigger activity (such as for 10 minutes before or after eating lunch) and check in with yourself. You can even schedule this on your calendar for reminders and to insure you’re not interrupted. What do you feel in your mind and body? A sense of hurry to get back to work? Unease from lack of sleep or lingering emotion from disagreement with your spouse? The simple act of tuning in and noticing what comes up is, in essence, the practice of tapping into one’s emotional self-awareness and attention. With regular practice, this can help deepen and lengthen attention span by rewiring the brain to be more at ease with less reactivity to external impulses. It will also help to combat the daily information overload, allowing for better coping of the stresses of everyday life.

Ann Flanagan Petry is a Positive Organizational Development Consultant, Coach and Contributing Author of the forthcoming book, Advancing Relationship-Based Cultures. She has over 20 years of experience driving performance improvement in organizations. She partners with leaders to cultivate resilient, mindful, emotionally intelligent teams who improve clients, their own and their organization’s performance and wellbeing. 

Recommended Reading:

Interested in learning more about Emotional Self-Awareness? Our newly released Primer provides a concise overview of this Emotional and Social Intelligence Leadership Competency. It is co-written by several thought leaders in the field of emotional intelligence, leadership development, and research: Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis, Vanessa Druskat, Richard Davidson, and George Kohlrieser. See the Primer here.