Years ago I handled labor relations in a meat processing facility where every employee had a singular function. Someone ran the slicer, someone else the grinder, etc. Everyone knew and accepted the very narrow parameters imposed on their job duties.
An exchange with a client this morning prompted my walk down meat packing memory lane. (more…)
He was demanding, settling for nothing less than one’s best. He was goal-oriented, charismatic and driven. He pushed when outcomes weren’t up to par; he beamed when they were. He challenged when he knew people were capable of more. He offered up praise, appreciation and thanks. He had his team’s back.
George “got” tough empathy.
He combined empathy with accountability and that is a skill set no leader should be without.
In their Harvard Business Review article, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones define tough empathy as “giving people not necessarily what they want, but what they need to achieve their best.”
Being both tough and tender, having both high standards and high touch, is the ultimate leadership balance beam act between task completion and relationship.
We’ve seen bosses who bark orders without regard to feelings and who leave positive morale as roadkill in the office. On the other hand, we’ve seen bosses who are so tender-hearted we wonder if they have a spine as no one is ever corrected or disciplined for egregious offenses or receives any feedback, either good or bad.
5 ways for leaders to use tough empathy
1) Intervene early and constructively.
When performance goes awry, leaders with tough empathy sit down and talk with the employee (this is not the time for an email). Let the employee know you have faith in their abilities and affirm the importance of their contributions to the organization.
Celebrate, recognize, appreciate. The file cabinet in the corner doesn’t have feelings, but employees do.
3) Don’t sugarcoat a one-way message.
Provide solid facts, specifics, and examples. If you offer up an impression, define the details that created it. This is the time for dialogue, not a monologue.
4) Demand more than an “I’ll try” response.
Assure the individual commits whole-heartedly to learning, performing and improving. Employees are responsible for their performance; the leader owns holding them consistently accountable.
5) Communicate that occasionally failing is OK.
Expecting off-the-chart success all the time leads to burnout and snuffs out innovation. Research by professor Amy Edmondson reveals “people in organizations feel psychologically safe when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and who work doggedly to do things better the next time.”
Ready to be one of those inspiring leaders who “gets” tough empathy?
Belle resisting giving Max the absolute answer he so clearly wanted; Max’s rising frustration with what he perceived as Belle’s wishy-washiness; and Belle’s explanation of how ambiguity is sometimes the right leadership answer.
Some business problems do have a black-and-white answer, like Is Sally ready to be promoted now? Yet with experience comes the realization that there isn’t a clearcut answer to many of the issues leaders face.
To select one remedy is to select wrong because both answers are right.
Sometimes our business needs speed and efficiency; other times achieving effectiveness takes a little longer. Leaders have to balance creating change while also maintaining stability.
We have to figure out how to prioritize both work and life demands.
On the receiving end of ambiguity
When you’re hoping for a black-and-white answer and get a shade-of-gray response, it’s likely you’re facing one of those both/and leadership scenarios. If so:
Reframe your impatience and/or disdain into inquiry.
Look for the bigger picture. Ask clarifying questions to understand why you received that response. Own digging in to understand the reasons behind the both/and answer.
Be willing to explore alternatives and contingencies.
Possibilities that may have never occurred to you can be top of mind for someone else — and could be a critical, overlooked factor which impacts your decision-making.
Why is it that you always want a black-and-white answer. Are you seeking a quick fix? Are you reluctant to take a deeper look; and if so, why? Are you succumbing to quantity over quality? Are you putting the bottom line above principles and people?
On the giving end of ambiguity
If you’re giving a both/and response to someone who obviously isn’t satisfied:
Explain your ambiguous answer.
We all process information in our own way, so providing an explanation of how you reached your conclusions helps others understand your thought processes. Here’s your leadership opportunity to teach others how either/or isn’t always the appropriate solution.
Start a dialogue.
Step back from command-and-control and seize the opportunity to expand each other’s point of view.
The person who wants the definite answer isn’t wrong, so don’t treat them as if they are. This isn’t the time for belittling remarks; it is the time for a teachable moment.
There’s something, isn’t there, about the ambiance of a little coffee shop that spurs how-we’re-going-to-change-the-world discussions?
The topic at hand was a rich and challenging one: reinventing leadership so it’s inspired and inspiring.
People want to produce value and feel valued…that’s a must do.
Places where employees are just-a-cog-in-the-wheel…well, those environments must go.
Ethics and integrity being tossed aside for economics and delivering, at any cost, perpetually better bottom line results is wrong, wrong, wrong.
We talked about what in leadership needs to change.
Rich stuff, intriguing, too. Addictive!
As you might imagine, there was immediate consensus on the need for a new leadership paradigm and no shortage of ideas for what it should be. Here’s the caffeine-stimulated change ingredient list we compiled:
No more singular focus on just the bottom line as a measure of success. Somewhere along the line, Drucker’s observation that “what gets measured gets managed” was corrupted. Hard and fast metrics make management easier, but that isn’t the point.
There must be a moral center. Ethics and integrity matter. Must end the Murdoch mentality of “get the story no matter what.”
Leaders apply confidence and humility in equal measure; both are used appropriately. Laughter and tears are welcome in the work place.
Contrarian points of view (albeit presented professionally and without haughty condescension) are encouraged. Brown-nosing is no longer a required promotional competency.
Power is used appropriately. If it’s a truly command-and-control scenario (crises), directives are OK. Otherwise, power is used with others and to produce win-win outcomes. Leaders know when to flex between styles and are held accountable for doing so.
Gender, race and ethnicity are irrelevant to effective leadership.
Pronouns reflect inclusion (we, not me) and courage (it was my decision…)
There’s a team-oriented approach to achieving results coupled with a spirit of “we’re all in this together.” No more “me-centered” spotlights.
Tough empathy rules. A job well-done is recognized and rewarded. Less-than-stellar performance is addressed immediately via thoughtful, continued coaching; follow-up required.
Serious thought goes into perks. Pooh-bahs don’t continue to fly in corporate jets while clerks and assistants have to pay for their morning cup of coffee.
Diversity goes beyond lip service and really means something. Inclusion is valued.
It’s OK, expected even, to go home while it’s still daylight and/or not come into the office on the weekend. Seeing your kid in a play or a soccer game matters.
Vacations are for renewal, really. Clear your head. Come back renewed not current with your email.
The squeaky wheel doesn’t get all the attention. People talk, share, engage. Political correctness in agreeing with the guy with the loudest voice isn’t politically correct anymore.
Given the breadth, depth and complexity of leadership, this new paradigm list is a work in progress.
I used to tease Frank, an accountant where I worked some years ago, about his hope that life would track more like a balance sheet — all the ins and outs offsetting perfectly, all neat and tidy.
Truth is, neat and tidy rarely applies to life, love and leadership.
Getting life, love and leadership right is messy, time-consuming and requires real commitment. This reality surfaced recently in a chat with a colleague when he remarked collaboration was more trouble than it was worth.
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. ~African Proverb
Borrowing an acronym from the military, collaboration is full of VUCA – volatility, uncertainly, complexity and ambiguity. Yet, when a shared effort goes right, the rewards are well worth the trouble.
4 takes on the power of collaboration
1. Collaboration is volatile – hang on, fasten your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.
Multiple opinions, experiences, styles and preferences come into play when working with a group. Sure it’s a balancing and sharing act, yet the variety of inputs yields a richer outcome than what you could have produced alone.
If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention. ~Tom Peters
2. Collaboration is full of uncertainty – what a great way to expand one’s comfort zone and sphere of knowledge.
Unpredictability and surprise expose us to ideas and emotions we may not encounter on a singular journey; some are beneficial, some not. Yet all add to the breadth and depth of our experience.
When you come to the edge of all the light you have, and must take a step into the darkness of the unknown, believe that one of two things will happen. Either there will be something solid for you to stand on or you will be taught how to fly. ~Patrick Overton
3. Collaboration is complex – embrace it.
It can be confusing, confounding, crappy and chaotic, too. Embrace them, too! Go it alone if you seek simplicity. If you and/or organization seek growth, engagement and innovation, pass out the hip waders and head for the deep end of the pool. That’s where the group can really challenge and support one another in the way to excellence.
The art of simplicity is a puzzle of complexity. ~Douglas Horton
4. Collaboration is ambiguous – add being tolerant of it to your toolkit.
Ambiguity is the breakfast of leaders. There’s no room in today’s complex world for cut-and-dried, black-and-white answers to everything. Many of the realities of business are dualities to be perpetually managed — things like stability and change, task and relationship, impose and facilitate.
Success requires you to do both because they identify a relationship that’s ongoing and which raises issues that don’t go away. A diet of all stability leads to atrophy and demise; a feast of all change yields bedlam and uncertainty.
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity. ~Gilda Radner
Emmanual Gobillot writes in Leadershift, “traditional leader behavior that focuses on command and control becomes irrelevant.” Can’t wait for that day to get here!
Communal social power and transformational leadership rest on a base of collaboration.
Leon, a retired executive, and I were meeting in one of those charming little independent coffee shops that are so conducive to great conversation.
We met a Chamber of Commerce meeting. We discovered we had a shared passion for leadership and the power of connection. Beyond that, our views of the world are widely different.
Oh wait. There’s the one other passion we share.
That really vigorous kind of discussion that challenges your thought processes and forces you to look at life, love and leadership from a vantage point outside your comfort zone.
The topic we’re dissecting: Should contrarians be included in your inner circle? Or not?
2 widely different contrarian views
Leon’s view. Leon is passionate, wildly so, that all the people in your work and personal circles must always be a right fit. Kinda like how all puzzle pieces fit together. He believes in alignment of thought and purpose. People who don’t align, well, they’re gone. Out, not included. No compromises. No apologies. Leon said he learned the value of this perspective years ago (of course, learning it the hard way) when he was leading his own manufacturing firm.
My view. I love having a mismatched collection of people around me at work or play. My only requirement is that there be respect and tolerance for the difference of opinions. No I’m right, you’re wrong kind of finger-pointing.
Leon’s rationale. People whose beliefs, ideas, skills, values, etc. aren’t aligned with yours create discord and failed outcomes. Remove them from your life before they negatively impact your success and muddle your thinking. Contrarians not allowed, period.
My view. Contrarians bring a richness, a layer of complexity, that forces me to grow. I don’t always agree with what they have to say and sometimes find the discussion uncomfortable but that’s OK with me.
Leon and I are sitting on opposite ends of this continuum.