Tag Archives: Matt Taylor

empathy in leadership

Empathy in Leadership: Coaching Leaders to Manage Their Stories

 

When leaders struggle with staff morale or direct reports failing to thrive, a lack of empathy is the lead domino.   These leaders forget that, as humans, we tend to make decisions based on our stories about other people.  These stories impact our every interaction with others because we can’t hide the emotions behind them.  Our stories also determine our broader management tactics, which can be as wildly off the mark as our stories themselves.

Negative stories about others that we hold as leaders come from what Heath and Heath call the “Fundamental Attribution Error” (Switch, 2010).   The simple idea:  it is “our inclination to attribute people’s behavior to the way they are rather than the situation they are in” (180). The error, of course, is that situations are far more likely to impact behavior than character traits, and this approach can lead to unnecessary conflict or losing high-potential employees.

The antidote is what I have come to call the noble story. This idea has its roots in the concept of noble purpose, which I learned in my coaching training at the Teleos Institute.  The basic premise is that we all believe we act from “noble” intention, which we can connect to our core values.   If we believe this is true for others as much as it is true for ourselves, then we must call into question stories that assume negative intent.  This offers us a path to connecting with people we struggle to believe in.

Much of my coaching involves helping school leaders connect personally with teachers and parents who have disappointed them, who are actively resisting them, or who just don’t share their race, class, gender, or philosophy.  Empathy comes into play often. A principal’s job is to create the conditions for students and teachers to learn in their buildings, and the core emotional conditions they must create are based on trust through relationships.  You can’t fake caring and trust, so it’s my job to teach principals how to build it with everyone.

The key is to help these leaders replace their negative stories with the noble story that the other person holds about him or her-self.

This line of coaching begins when I hear my leaders start to explain their report’s behavior with their negative stories.  I hear things like, “How is it that an adult who went to college doesn’t know how to ____,” or “he’s not a good fit here because he doesn’t (care/try/believe) enough. “When I hear these kinds of comments I ask the following questions to raise self-awareness:

“How does that story serve you, and how is it getting in your way?” 

 “To what extent do you think that they are aware of how you are feeling?”

“What impact do you think that assumption has on your staff member?”

Leaders usually get to the unpleasant answers themselves, but if they don’t, I remind them of Daniel Goleman’s concept of the emotional loop:  you can’t fake or hide your true emotions.  People know how you feel about them.  And the impact of not being “believed in” on one’s ability to learn—especially when learning includes an adaptive challenge—is debilitating.

From here, we start our work on self-managing stories.  This is where we build the “muscle” to manage negative stories and create noble ones.  The following are steps that any of us can use to develop this muscle.

Showing Up To Connect: A Self-Management Exercise to get to Empathy

  1. List 3-5 things about the other person that is part of your negative story. What are your emotional triggers behind this story?   How can you manage them?
  2. Make a list of the real challenges this person is facing at work and/or in life. Connect each one to an emotion they are likely experiencing that may be contributing to the challenge at hand. What can you genuinely empathize with?
  3. Write a list of at least five aspects of the other’s noble story that you also value. These may include:
  • core values or character traits that you can respect about them
  • current strengths
  • past growth and success
  • the intentions that drive their actions that you can respect
  1. List the things that you want for the other as a person (i.e. as another human being in this world that is trying to do this work and life a happy life).

After taking these steps I ask my leaders to write them as a narrative.   I ask them to share it with me, and then I ask them what emotions they are feeling toward their staff member.   Leaders notice a significant change of emotion from our past conversations, and even from right before doing this exercise. This is a sign of developing empathy, and it comes with a new approach in how the leader interacts with their team.  With this motivation, I charge them with:

  1. Revisiting their “Noble Story” narrative before their next meeting with their report.
  2. During the meeting, asking questions about their report’s own noble story.  Leaders should listen for what they missed or don’t understand, holding the intention of building their noble story.
  3. Affirming what they hear and adding pieces of their own narrative.

Leaders usually report an instant shift in the energy of their relationships.  This is just a beginning of course.  Over time I work with leaders on developing the muscle to hold their story even when people struggle or disappoint them in some way.

Feeling empathy for the people we lead is not the silver bullet to accelerating growth or building team morale, but I have found it to be the foundation for both.  People need to feel that their leaders believe in them and trust them enough to take learning risks.  They also take the cues from leaders about how to treat others.

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!

Achievement Orientation: Coaching Strategies for Insightful Leadership

 

It is true that leaders who struggle to maintain a productive achievement orientation often have technical growth areas related to setting goals, progress monitoring, and analyzing data.  However, there is often a deeper adaptive issue at play that limits the impact of technical skill building when not addressed.

Whether they know it or not, many leaders care less about achievement than they do about other core personal values.  The good news is that leaders can learn to balance these seemingly competing values in their work.

David McClelland’s “Learned Needs Theory” from The Achieving Society (1961) has helped me and the leaders I coach make sense of this phenomenon.   According to McClelland, there are three core human motives:

  • Affiliation – valuing collaboration, relationship, and belonging to a group.
  • Power – valuing competition, recognition, and influencing others.
  • Achievement – valuing setting and accomplishing goals, and receiving feedback on progress.

McClelland believes that everyone values all three motives, but our life experiences and environments make one of them our dominant motive. Leaders who struggle to care enough about achievement are driven by another motive in a way that competes with achievement.  As a coach, it is my job to raise self-awareness about competing motives, push leaders to challenge assumptions about achievement that are getting in their way, and support them in crafting a new values-driven narrative that gets achievement and their other core motive working in harmony.

In my experience, leaders are most likely to struggle to reconcile achievement motive with their affiliative motive.

Paul is a leader I coached who fits this bill.  Paul led a small company with moderate results and was loved by his employees and clients. Still, Paul felt like there was a next level for him as a leader, and so jumped at the opportunity to leave his comfortable position to grow at another high-achieving company.  Within weeks of his arrival, however, Paul’s enthusiasm began to falter. He struggled to implement the company’s coaching system, with its focus on tight, accountable data cycles and direct performance feedback.  When I met Paul, his manager shared that Paul’s feedback often “hid the ball”, and that he was allowing his people to settle for lackluster achievement goals.  Meanwhile, Paul confided in me that his new work felt cold and impersonal. He was worried that his team was becoming discouraged by the impossibly high expectations and constant constructive feedback.

The more stories Paul told me about his performance management practice, the more I suspected that his root issue was competing beliefs. I realized that Paul’s ability to grow depended first on building his awareness about his own values conflict.

To help Paul I began unpacking his meetings with his direct reports that felt off. I asked these questions:

At what point in the meeting did you feel dissonance?   What did your person say or do that triggered that?

How did you feel when this happened? Name an actual emotion. Where do you think this is coming from?

What thoughts were going through your head that impacted your use of the coaching system?

What values or beliefs are under attack for you in this situation?  In other words, what do you deeply believe about the right way to develop people that is being violated here?

When Paul is able to name a deep belief that feels somehow compromised, I share McClelland’s core motive theory with him and ask him, “Based on the conversation we just had, what do you think is most likely your core motive?”  His answer:  affiliation.  At this point, the heavy lifting begins.  I ask Paul:

How do you think this core motive is serving you right now, and how do you think it might be getting in your way?

I follow this question with others that encourage Paul to consider the impact of his actions on his direct reports, on outcomes, and ultimately the impact on himself.  My goal is not to disparage Paul’s affiliation motive (certainly one of his core strengths as a leader), but rather to help him see when it shows up in ways that are holding him back as a leader.

When Paul starts to dig in about people’s feelings, I ask him to consider how his actions now are impacting the feelings of his people.  At some point Paul realizes that the way he currently values affiliation through relationships and nurturing emotional harmony not only impacts outcomes, but actually strains relationships and causes negative emotions. He sees that when he lets people off the hook for achieving goals and sugarcoats performance feedback, he is inadvertently sending the message that he doesn’t believe they are capable of achieving and growing.

Paul is now both confused and ready to re-balance his beliefs about affiliation and achievement.  I help him craft a new values-driven narrative that creates a new leadership path by asking the following questions:

  • What do you deeply believe are all of the conditions people need to learn and grow? Sort them by motive.  You believe all of these things, even if they currently seem at odds.
  • How will you know when some of these conditions are actually getting in the way of growth? What could you do as a leader when this happens? 
  • How will you make yourself lean into the conditions you know some people need, even when they fall into the achievement motive and push up against your affiliative motive?

Paul develops a plan to be aware of when his affiliation motive gets in his way, and to manage his unproductive impulses.  The plan helps him make better decisions about development strategies, because he is now trying to figure out what his reports need to grow rather than what makes them feel good.  With practice and coaching, Paul learns to care about achievement by replacing old assumptions and habits with new ones that balance care for people and performance.

Recommended Reading:

Achievement Orientation

Our new primer series is written by Daniel Goleman and fellow thought leaders in the field of Emotional Intelligence and research. The following are available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, Adaptability, and Achievement Orientation, with new releases monthly throughout 2017.

For more in-depth insights, see the Crucial Competence video series!

Adaptability in leadership

How to Coach for Adaptability in Leadership

Coaching new school principals, I have come to appreciate the hidden emotional costs to leadership promotion. If I don’t support my leaders to adapt emotionally to their new roles, they are more likely to hit a wall when adapting to the skills of their new job.

Consider Janet. As an assistant principal, she turns every task into gold because of her work ethic, intelligence, instructional expertise, and organizational skills. She earns considerable credibility with her team, and so is a no-brainer successor when her principal decides to move on.

Six months later, Janet is struggling. She works extremely hard and everyone appreciates her level of commitment, but the school is not humming. She is both angered and confused by a growing resistance to the student culture system among the upper grade teachers, and blames the teachers when student discipline begins to slip. There is dissension among the leadership team on how to manage these challenges. She is surprised by what she sees as the weakness of many of her team members, and so finds it easier to take on student challenges herself. And yet, for the first time, she is missing deadlines and dropping balls. How can she get to the adult issues when student challenges take up so much of her time?

I see multiple entry points to coaching Janet, but most will treat the symptoms rather than the disease. If I choose to attack technical skills such as meeting facilitation, difficult conversations or even personal organization, I miss the fact that Janet has failed to adapt to her new position at an emotional level.

Adapting Starts with Self-Awareness

Because leaders like Janet begin a perpetual sprint from the moment they are offered their new job, few take the time to ground themselves emotionally in what is happening to them. William Bridge’s Transitions (1980) is an excellent place to start building Emotional Self-Awareness because it emphasizes that all change processes—no matter how positive—begin with endings and loss. Janet and I begin our work by reading chapter one and talking about endings. I ask her some combination of these questions:

Even when transitions are positive ones, there’s loss. How does Bridge’s theory of endings help you make sense of your principal transition experience so far? What have you lost or had to let go of already? How do you think this has affected you emotionally? To what extent have you been able to let go? What do you think is getting in your way?

Once Janet gets the idea about letting go, she needs help identifying the kinds of things that will get in her way if she doesn’t let go. Charan’s The Leadership Pipeline (2000) is a great place to start. I connect our endings conversation to exploring what’s getting in the way with this quote:

The highest-performing people, especially, are reluctant to change; they want to keep doing the activities that made them successful. As a result, people make the job transition from individual contributor to manager without making a behavioral or value-based transition. In effect, they become managers without accepting the requirements.

Chapter one offers concrete behaviors and values that get in the way of leaders adapting to new stages of leadership. Janet begins to see how her strength as a “doer” is holding her back from leading through others. My job at this point is to help Janet become aware of the values connected to her work up to this point, and then support her to make a conscious choice to shift them. Even when the choice is made, it takes time to unpack the habits, relationships, loyalties, and even character traits that are all pieces of Janet’s former strength.

Self Managing Through the Micro-Moments

Janet will confront countless micro-moments of challenge that are in fact opportunities to shift her deeply ingrained behaviors. Tomorrow she will be drawn to a challenging teacher-student interaction as she walks down the hallway. She can choose to jump in and solve the problem, call the behavioral support staff whose job it is to support teachers, or let the teacher manage his own challenge. Being aware—of the choice and of the emotions and values at play—is the first step. Then, Janet needs some strategies to help her choose new behaviors.

At this point, Janet and I do some aspirational thinking. I learned from Boyatzis’s Intentional Change Model (2006) that exploring the ideal opens Janet’s mind to possibilities that will likely yield effective self-management strategies. As we focus on a specific micro-moment—reactively or proactively—I say to her:

Imagine at this moment that you are able to lead masterfully through others. How would you get yourself to do it? You see that teacher struggling with that student! What do you do with your emotions and desire to jump in? What do you think or do that keeps you from engaging?

Deeply exploring this moment of opportunity allows Janet to identify some things she can do to manage her emotions and her old values and habits, and leverage new ones. She articulates a reminder that her inner coach will chant (“Remember, you are the only person that can lead this school. How many other people can do this work right now?”). She practices taking two deep breaths to ground herself in the moment. She makes a plan to engage her trusted assistant principal as an accountability partner. Janet keeps these strategies on a note-card that she tapes to the back of her iPad. We reflect on application over time, revising strategies as we learn what works, until Janet is consistently making strong choices about the work that she takes on or delegates to other staff.

Slowing your new leader down to reflect on endings, loss and surrendering strengths that no longer serve them is worth it. This coaching will save you weeks or months in new skill acquisition.

Recommended reading:

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.

The primers focus on the competencies of Emotional and Social Intelligence in leadership. You can find the first 3 in the series available now: Emotional Self-Awareness, Emotional Self-Control, and Adaptability.