Friday, September 5, 2008

Leading with Empathy

We had already biked 120 miles through Sequoia National Park in two days. I was shocked that my legs felt strong as we made the final push through 20 miles of hot, dusty, roads to our hotel in Exeter, CA. I took the lead to be the windbreaker for my friend Mike. I heard his labored breathing as I bolted by, my resilient legs urging me to stay up front for a while. But two minutes later, he passed me. I started to move to the front again after about a minute. BUT he growled at me to stay back and let him do the work of breaking the wind. I backed off, wondering why he was so upset. A few miles later, I found out.

We stopped to refill our water bottles and have a “chat.” He explained that although he was dead tired, he needed to spend time in the lead. I told him my legs felt strong and that I didn’t mind doing most of the work at the front. He replied that he didn't feel good about himself unless he was “contributing” by sharing the work. He then apologized for yelling (i.e., not expressing his emotion well) and I apologized for being clueless about his need to be at the front (i.e., not being more empathetic). How about you? How empathetic are you, especially when your team is working hard?

Leading researchers in the field of emotional intelligence have found that social intelligence, especially empathy, is critical to effective leadership. (1) High-level executives, hired for their strong self-discipline, drive, and intellect, often are fired because they lack social skills, especially empathy, under pressure. Empathy is also critical when giving negative feedback to employees. Imagine if you had two groups that needed performance feedback. One group you give negative feedback, but you give positive emotional signals such as smiling and nodding during the session. To the second group, you provide positive feedback but deliver it with negative emotional signals such as frowns, wrinkled brows, and narrowed eyes. Research tells us that the people who received positive feedback with your negative emotional signals would feel worse about their performance than those who received negative feedback with a positive emotional delivery. How can you can be more empathetic when you need to deliver negative messages?

Here are six steps to help develop your social intelligence, such as empathy:

1. Develop a personal vision for change. Write down the clear picture of the person you want to become, especially as it relates to being more empathetic.

2. Undergo a thorough diagnostic assessment. Ask your Human Resource Department or e-mail me for information about assessing your emotional intelligence. A good 360-feedback instrument helps you understand where you need to grow relative to the personal vision you created in step one.

3. Keep a log of your daily successes and failures. Use the log to help you notice when and how you practice new empathy behaviors.

4. Work with a mentor. Identify someone at work who has excellent emotional intelligence skills. Ask them if you could work with them over the next several months to grow your skills. Leaders I coach often have an internal mentor at work also. A coach and mentor is a great one - two punch.

5. Use daily reminders. Identify current habits that you can link to the new behaviors you want to augment. For example, if you take notes during meetings, you might write words at the top of your notepad to help remind you to be empathetic during meetings. Every time you looked down to scratch a note, you'll see your reminders. Old habit + new behavior = new habit.

6. Celebrate small success. Reward yourself whenever you experience small progress using or growing your new skill. When I was an executive at UCLA, I rewarded my progress by walking to the cafeteria for a frozen yogurt, going out for lunch, or taking a mid-afternoon break. That which gets rewarded gets repeated.

My friend and I finished our biking journey yesterday… and we are still friends because we are both committed to growing our emotional intelligence. How are you going to continue growing yours?

See you in Sequoia,


1. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis; Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership, ‘Harvard Business Review,’ September 2008, 74 - 81.


Sue said...

Love the daily reminders and recording your successes/failures suggestions. They truly do work, especially when you are first trying to change a habit.

Dave Jensen, Leadership Expert said...

Thanks Sue,

First we make our habits, then they make us. So I'm always looking for ways to create habits that serve me.