SOMETIMES A BOSS has to deliver bad news. It is not part of the job description, but it is part of the job, and the way it is done says a great deal about the leadership style and overall competency of the person in charge.
Depending on the organisation and context, what constitutes bad news can be one of many things. It might be about an impending corporate restructuring with anticipated company-wide layoffs, a move to less convenient office premises, or the non-payment of discretionary bonuses. Whatever the case, one thing can make all the difference in gaining acceptance and maintaining staff morale – the way the message is delivered.
One type of boss is likely to call the team together and open with a phrase like: “It’s not easy for me to have to tell you about the corporate downsizing.” In contrast, another would start by saying something along the lines of: “You will probably want to know how things stand with the possible takeover.”
At first glance, the difference might appear negligible, but even those few introductory words say a lot about the extent to which the two individuals are emotionally aware of others. In a situation which obviously creates major concerns for everyone, the first person is focused primarily on his or her own feelings. The second, while no doubt still having all sorts of personal worries, can see what the occasion demands. That is to show empathy for others by taking full consideration of their perspective, realising what they want to know, and trying to understand exactly how they feel.
Beyond the strict confines of the world of business, people are commended for having empathy and being in tune with the needs of others. Members of the medical profession are expected to be caring; teachers think about the welfare of every single pupil; and social workers are trained to help the less fortunate.
However, as soon as you put someone in a manager’s office, a different set of rules applies. There, a caring attitude and displays of empathy are generally frowned upon. As a result, recent appointees soon learn to conform to the accepted stereotype by becoming increasingly detached and steely-edged, seeing people as “headcount” and, as far as possible, eliminating the “human factor” from any important business decision.
The best leaders, though, have recognised that this is not the way to go. In fact, they realise that showing empathy and getting close to members of their team creates definite advantages and makes it easier to guide the company in good times and bad. They know it is possible to be emotionally aware of others, while still being able to take the tough business decisions. And by creating an environment where people can see their feelings and deeper concerns will not be dismissed out of hand, the result is stronger team spirit and better overall performance.
Interpreting emotions correctly and acting on that understanding can have an immediate positive impact. Consider, for example, a manager who has heard that the daughter of one team member is ill in hospital. It would be easy enough to adopt the “business as usual” approach, demanding that all sales reports are completed by month-end and that an unconvincing client presentation is completely rewritten over the weekend.
Alternatively, the manager could be emotionally aware. That would simply involve acknowledging the circumstances, admitting that the employee will perhaps be feeling worried, angry and scared, and making concessions. If a report is late, the world won’t stop turning, and someone else can always fix up a presentation.
In such a case, taking the second course is not only practical – it will also benefit the business in the long term. Seeing what’s happening, other staff will be happy to help out and a greater sense of teamwork and unity will develop.
Today’s best leaders also see that emotional awareness is important for three other reasons. Firstly, with so many companies now operating on a global basis, it is vital to be sensitive to the differing attitudes, beliefs and feelings of people from diverse backgrounds brought together in a multicultural workplace. For example, in a company with a western-style management, it might be common practice to convene brainstorming meetings at which staff are encouraged to say whatever comes into their head. Transplanting the same approach to an office in Asia may simply lead to puzzled looks and long silences. Therefore, if you are in tune with how people from different cultures feel in certain situations, you will be a far more effective manager.
Secondly, a successful modern business depends on good teamwork. Within each team, though, there are almost sure to be personality clashes, alliances and conflicting priorities. If a leader can discern what people feel about the key issues and about each other, it makes it much easier to circumnavigate problems and achieve the desired goals. By using emotional awareness to find the right direction and the best combinations, both collaboration and productivity will improve.
Thirdly, in any competitive market, companies find it hard to hold on to the best staff. One of the best ways of enhancing retention is to create an environment where staff want to work, If they know they are listened to, appreciated and cared for, they will not be tempted away by promises and the prospect of a few extra dollars.
Of course, there is a degree of skill required in picking up the various emotional cues and responding to them in the right way. In most cases, though, the key is to listen, observe and, importantly, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. With a little bit of imagination, that’s not so hard to do.
What is Empathy?
Empathy is the recognition and understanding of the states of mind, including beliefs and desires, of the people around you. It is a matter of knowing what is important to them and what is not. However, it should also go beyond that to understanding why other people are likely to feel a certain way. In the workplace, showing empathy does not mean the same as giving agreement. It is perfectly feasible to understand how someone feels without being obliged to agree with their point of view. In the same way, nothing stops you from seeing why an advertising campaign is effective, without particularly liking the background music or the celebrity endorser.
Most of us recognise the importance of rapport, even if we cannot precisely define how to build it. In essence, it is a question of reducing the differences between two people at a subconscious level. This can be done by noting similarities, highlighting common goals and identifying shared goals or beliefs. A good level of rapport makes it easier to manage and lead a team. Usually, the best way for managers to start building rapport is by talking about what most interests members of the team, or what they find important. Too many managers only talk to their staff when they need something and are then surprised when, in a crunch, subordinates are not prepared to go the extra mile.
When something happens at work, we are likely to experience one of three different types of emotion. We may feel positive, excited and optimistic; neutral and basically content; or negative, frustrated and annoyed. For any leader, a useful exercise is to ask your team to list the work-related events or activities which cause them to feel positive, neutral and negative emotions. Afterwards, you can arrange a brainstorming session to devise strategies to help maximise the positive events and emotions, and minimise the others. You can progressively implement the best ideas before periodically repeating the exercise.