Sunday, December 14, 2008

Empathically Yours

"Soft skills" may be a misnomer, as I suggested in a recent post, but they are still essential to management and leadership.

To make them more workable we need to redefine them and to remove the errant connotations of softness.

Soft skills are people skills. They are organizational and motivational. They matter because, as I once read, successful executive leadership involves getting other people to do things. Also, to get them to like what they are doing, to work harder at their tasks, and to like the people they are doing it with.

Management and leadership involve getting others to function effectively in a group... whether to study a problem or to implement a policy.

If you do a Google search you will find that all of the soft skills mavens say that the basis of leading, managing, and getting along is... empathy.

But, what exactly is empathy?

If you look at the Wikipedia compilation of the different definitions you will see that they are diverse and confused. Link here.

It is very difficult to teach or to apply a skill when no one seems to know what it really is.

Most coaches know that leadership is not about ordering people around and assuming that when you say jump they will all jump. So they offer empathy as a corrective. For them it means that an executive must understand that his staff members have feelings too.

It is difficult to imagine that a person gains a position of executive leadership without knowing that other people have feelings, but stranger things have happened.

Strictly speaking, empathy means: feeling someone else's feelings. At its root it involves pathos, thus, pity.

But then, do you really believe that an effective executive can lead his team by feeling sorry for them? Or because he feels their pain?

You cannot manage people by declaring that you feel their pain. Most sentient individuals, hearing that someone feels their pain, will respond, correctly, that he does not. The best you can ever do is to feel your own pain.

And what makes you imagine that you can feel the feelings of someone you have very little in common with? Does the grizzled male executive have any real sense of what it feels like to be a twentysomething modern woman?

When someone confesses a painful experience, the best you can usually do is to respond in kind... not by saying that you feel his pain, but by telling of a similar experience.

The question is: is this empathy or are you simply reciprocating, as though you were exchanging gifts. It seems to be more about reciprocity than about fellow feeling.

Worse yet, the term empathy seems to suggest that when someone comes to an executive with a plaintive excuse for why he is chronically late or cannot focus on his work, the executive should feel his pain.

I am sure you know that this is bad management technique. You might forgive the person is he is sufficiently apologetic, but excusing him because you feel his pain will create dissension and drama in the ranks.

Some thinkers have balked at the notion of fellow feeling. It is a bit too soft for their tastes. Their definition suggests that empathy involves putting yourself in someone else's shoes. This means that you should be conscious of the effects your words or actions produce in another person.

I will pass over the fact that putting yourself in someone else's shoes can feel invasive or intrusive. Would it not be better to respect the integrity of the feelings of others?

Nonetheless, being aware of the effects you are evoking in others is a basic conversational skill. When you are talking to another person you should know how to pick up both verbal and nonverbal cues. You should be aware of the way a person words something and the wording that they are avoiding. And you should know how to read facial expressions, physical gestures, and tone of voice. Then you should modulate your conversation accordingly.

As I have been at pains to assert in other blog posts, conversation is not about giving full voice to your feelings or saying whatever comes to mind. It involves establishing a connection with another person by engaging in a reciprocal, and measured, exchange of information, thoughts, and feelings.

Your goal should be to establish something like a harmonious exchange. And this is a better leadership model that imposing your will on another person and then feeling the pain they are feeling for being bossed around.

An effective leader should not lord it over people. But the skills involved go beyond empathy.

First, an effective leader must respect his staff, respect their ideas, and involved them in the deliberative process. Instead of telling them that he feels their pain, he should tell them that he finds something of great value in their ideas or their performance. Not so much because because he has invaded their mental space but because he wants them to be involved in the process.

Making too much of empathy can lead us astray in another way. If your team is competing against another team you certainly do not want your players to empathize with their opponents.

If you want your team to be fiercely competitive, it is not a great idea to have them learn to shower the world with empathy.

How can you do this? Simply, by going beyond empathy and recognizing that the true basis for effective leadership is setting a good example.

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