October 16, 2012
As a sociatrist, I’m passionate about people in business developing greater ability to stand in each others’ shoes. It’s one of the cornerstones of the work we do at Quantum Shift and is central to nurturing greater health in organisations. This is often given the name “empathy”. I bristle a little, however, when I hear someone say, “I can have empathy for them, but…..” What’s that expression? Everything before the “but” is bulls**t. I go along with Professor Simon Baron Cohen’s idea that empathy sits along a spectrum. I also go along with Martin Buber’s suggestion that the point on the spectrum at which we start treating people as objects is when we are capable of cruelty. At the same time, I would extend this to say that we can go beyond empathy and develop the ability to role reverse with others. There is an embodied knowing that comes via the act of role reversal, beyond mere thought and cognitive understanding, which facilitates a deeper ability to live in someone else’s skin. Getting this at a head, heart and gut level changes our world beyond what we thought possible. It becomes harder to switch off our empathy and behave as if people are mere resources when we have a full experience of what it’s like for them. Personally, I also find that I am more able to stop myself mid-sentence when I hear myself saying, “I understand where they’re coming from, but….” and upon reflection, widen my perspective on the other person a little more. Role reversal helps to unshackle us from the (mostly unconscious) chains we keep ourselves in, with regards our views of other people.
In some circles, it is increasingly accepted that empathy is a key capability of a leader. Even in the face of research, some still ignore this. However, there is a growing tide of evidence that empathy is a core skill for the modern workplace. Empathic ability is positively correlated to better performance as a leader. It facilitates much improved working relationships and in the modern workplace, we often don’t get to choose who we work with. An increasingly diverse workforce creates challenges for us and in order for us to get things done, we need to learn how to get on with a greater variety of working styles, viewpoints and personalities. Getting a deep, felt sense of what it’s like for someone else grants us greater ability to make decisions, be inclusive, resolve conflicts and share responsibility.
I was deeply touched to read of a young man, conservative, self-confessed homophobe and Christian, who decided to live his life for one year as a gay man. He was moved by a Christian friend’s experience of being kicked out of home when she came out as a lesbian and decided that he really wanted to understand what it was like to be gay. This was no mere thought experiment; he was determined to truly walk in the shoes of a homosexual man. By immersing himself in the experience, which included coming out to his family, he developed a profound understanding of what it was like to actually be a gay man. He came out of the year with his faith reaffirmed, along with the belief that gay people need equal rights. I would attribute his insights to the fact that for one year of his life, he gave up his position and fully took up the role of another.
“The challenge of understanding another person and what it takes to truly feel understood by another is at the hub of human social existence”, according to Dr. Dani Yaniv at the University of Haifa, in his 2012 paper, “Dynamics of Creativity and Empathy in Role Reversal: Contributions from Neuroscience.” We are utterly and inextricably linked to all human life. That goes for business, too. Yet how easy it is to dispense with another’s viewpoint if it doesn’t match ours or disregard another’s experience if it’s too far from our ken or to dispose of someone’s creative contributions if they come from a value or belief system we think is irrelevant. I will put my hand up and say I am guilty of these things at times; there are moments when I wish I could have shown more equanimity, generosity of spirit and caring. I’m flawed; there, I’ve said it. Send me back to the factory to be re-programmed.
While it is an interesting paradox that we can never really know what someone else is experiencing, we can develop the ability to role reverse, thus allowing our knowing of others to deepen and unfold. We generate in ourselves a creative empathy that brings new ways of being with people. When we role reverse, we are wholly someone else just for a moment and left to learn from what we discover. Having had a mind-body experience of another’s world, our lives and the lives of others are changed forever, sometimes subtly or, in the case of that young Christian man, quite dramatically. Like that young man, our view of others is expanded, with our own selves intact. We are able to transcend ourselves through the act of role reversal.
Role reversal leads us outside our own experience and world view and into those of another. We cannot unlearn what we have learnt when it’s a visceral, whole person experience. We can, if we really apply ourselves, pretend not to know what it’s like from another’s point of view, but having truly given ourselves to the experience of another’s existence, this would require in us to take up a role of particularly selfish and uncaring dimension. What would be the use of that?
When it comes to empathy, it’s often easier to find it for people with whom we share some values or beliefs. As I referred to in my interview with Dan Oestreich, role reversal takes us beyond empathy, however. When we really get stuck with someone, when they “push our buttons”, it can be hard to find a way to understand that person. Their behaviours and attitudes mystify us and, left unaddressed, we can begin to characterise them by what we see as their faults. We do ourselves and others a disservice when we reduce someone to a bunch of “bad” behaviours. Doing this leaves the salesperson or customer service rep, for example, in a poorer position when they are not able to understand another person’s circumstances accurately. When we see another person’s behaviours as coming from a real and value-based place, we become freer to meet their concerns.
A manager we once worked with in the course of a leader development process described an employee she referred to as a “bad egg”. This manager, I’ll call her Stacey, had the wherewithal to know that this employee, whom I’ll call Emily, was not an intrinsically bad person, but that some of their behaviours at work made it particularly challenging to work alongside. What Stacey wanted to learn was a greater ability in herself to work with Emily. That was the first step: engaging her will. Stacey had made a conscious decision to bring her relationship with Emily into the domain of this workshop and declare that she wanted things to be better. She also recognised that there was something she could do differently in herself that would shine a light on how to approach her relationship with Emily. So, with Stacey, we set up a scenario between her and Emily. This was the second step: mustering the courage to examine the situation. As we began the re-enactment of the scenario, there was a moment when I directed Stacey to reverse roles with Emily. That is, she physically sat in Emily’s chair and adopted Emily’s role. For a moment, Stacey gave up herself and behaved as if she was Emily. This was the third step: giving up herself and becoming the other. There was no acting involved; she was being Emily. When she reversed roles and returned to her primary self, she looked at me and quietly said, “It’s gone.” When I asked her what she meant, she said that she longer viewed Emily as a “bad egg”. She became quite reflective at this point and I could see that she had had a sea-change in her attitude towards Emily. Some weeks later, at a subsequent session, I asked her how she was going with Emily and for a moment, she had to pause to recollect that she had had some issues with her, then said, “Oh, it’s fine now.” She had worked out, from her own creativity, how she could relate to Emily differently, having had the experience of being Emily. This, again, was no thought experiment. Stacey had immersed herself in the role of Emily, giving up her own values and beliefs, knowing that for the purposes of learning something new, she could safely give herself up momentarily and then to return to being herself, her awareness expanded.
This interpersonal process of role reversal facilitates a deep understanding of others that we struggle to achieve via a cognitive thought experiment. Once known, it cannot be unknown. It reveals the bigger picture (the wider system) to us in ways an intellectual exercise cannot. Once seen, it cannot be unseen. Once developed, the ability to role reverse also cannot be faked. It is a whole body capability which takes us beyond empathy.
Developing the ability to role reverse helps to free us to truly serve others; not as “dry” acts of duty, but as genuine service. How much easier it is to be the kind of leader that people need us to be when we are doing it out of an act of our will, not out of obligation. How much more effective we are as customer service officers if our default setting is applying our abilities to really “getting” the person we are dealing with. How much more satisfying it is as a salesperson to engage with another and know intimately what they are looking for.
Understanding others at work is not discretionary.
To my mind, role reversal is not a “tool”; it is not used selectively. It is something which is integrated into who we are and how we express ourselves in relation to others around us. It colours all our interactions and is not a thing to be switched on and off as it suits us. Even rhesus monkeys operate empathically. In an experiment, they were taught to pull a chain to obtain food. When they were shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time they pulled the chain, they stopped pulling it. One monkey went without food for 12 days. I wonder what Milgram would say about that?
What do you say about that?
September 8, 2012
“Many people live in the hallucination that they can truly lead other people without being able to lead themselves and this is pure fantasy. It is much easier to try to change other people and not being willing to change ourselves. This exercise of authenticity is very much needed if we truly want to inspire, touch and move the brains and the souls of those around us.” So writes Mario Alonso Puig, Fellow and Doctor, Harvard Medical School in the recent World Economic Forum report, Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership.
I’m initially a little hesitant when I read something that uses the word “model” because of the meaning we still tend to attach to that word “model” in our consumerist societies. New models of leadership, huh? (For this, I have been too often disappointed and end up reading some fast food version of what it means to be a leader: barely nutritional, highly addictive and something which passes through the system quickly.) Part of that hallucination to which Puig so eloquently refers is, I believe, related to a world in which we think we can continually “get” and “consume”. Gimme gimme gimme, make it quick, make it punchy, make it easily digestible. Don’t need to really soak it in, it’s just going to come out the other end anyway because, like a lot of fast food, I’m going to be hungry again in a little while and whatever is to hand will do. What’s the next leadership model I need to (rapidly) familiarise myself with, then?
This WEF report, however, sets out more than just a model. It’s a descriptive, and rather compelling, vision of what it could mean to be a leader and also points the way to how we could regard leader development in a VUCA world. When the world we navigate is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, how do we respond? As the report states, integral to effective leadership is the inner journey leaders must embark upon. This is not about tips and strategies, rather it is something to which there are no short-cuts. Developing self-knowing can sometimes feel elusive. Just as we get to grips with one thing, it can seem to vanish, unlike technical information, for which there is a manual.
There are concepts and phenomena that are becoming more ubiquitous and mainstream such as “emotional intelligence“, “mirror neurons“, “flourishing” and all those other really interesting things that science and rigorous research are demonstrating have some truth to them. Any leader who wishes to remain relevant and become more effective would do well to familiarise themselves with some of these, however knowing about them and actually applying them to oneself are two different things. There is a world of difference between a seminar that describes emotional intelligence and an experiential workshop in which you immerse yourself in stretching your abilities to relate with people and in which you practice reversing roles with others. You will gain information from the one, but the insights gained may not result in changing who you are. You will become different as a result of the other.
In answer to the question, “What is the best model of leadership?” I would suggest, it depends. Not terribly helpful I know, but it depends on who you are and that question is one to which you are far better placed to answer than me. We will all find various models or tools of more or less use. We will all find different descriptions of leader behaviour of more or less relevance. One thing is sure: learning who we are is essential if we are indeed “to inspire, touch and move the brains and souls of those around us” and the effectiveness of a model is, I suggest, going to be directly correlated to the level of self-knowing that the person attempting to apply it has achieved.
Models are all well and good but I believe the chief question to address is not “What is the best model?” but “How can I become more authentic?” or “Who am I and how do I bring the real me to my role as a leader?” In my time, I’ve encountered people who are not in formally-recognised “leadership” roles, but who exercise themselves with this question daily and exhibit what I would call excellent leader capabilities. This is the kind of thinking I infer from the WEF report: that leader development is not just for those in management roles, but in a social economy, leader capabilities are people capabilities. All kinds of people who bring a kind of authenticity and real human-ness to their work indicate the good stuff that more CEOs would do well to take heed of. There have been the internet provider’s customer service representatives who answer my grumpy phone calls and who manage to both help me solve my technical problems as well as ease my frustrations and keep me as a customer. That’s leadership. There were the hotel reservation staff who actually listened to my concerns and went the extra mile, and before I even check in have provided me an experience of customer service that makes me feel like I’ll be staying there again and again. That’s leadership.
A model of leadership ought, in my view, be descriptive, rather than prescriptive. In a world still dominated by “I want”, “What can I get?” and “Just give me the 10 top tips,” we need to be careful of limiting our development as leaders to descriptions of one aspect of this without also taking on board that the task at hand is self-discovery. Fine to learn a new top tip, but we have to avoid reducing leadership to a set of behaviours or a set of attitudes. Layering these on without also looking inside will be inauthentic. Who are you really, underneath all that make-up? Authentic leadership and being an authentic leader seems to me much more about being the leaders we want to be, not modelling ourselves in accordance with the latest trend, which could be akin to wearing someone else’s clothes which are slightly ill-fitting and in which we never really feel comfortable.
“Real learning gets to the heart of what it means to be human. Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life. There is within each of us a deep hunger for this type of learning.” Peter Senge
Part of discovering who we want to be as a leader implies doing something that nobody else has done in the entire history of the universe: being you. I sometimes joke that a really useful personality metric would be one that has not four or 16 or 30 types of people, but seven billion. Certainly, we have more that unites us than separates us; certainly we share 99% of our genes with mice, but the chemistry of all the roles we enact in our lives synthesises into one and only one unique living entity.
I have made the point in a couple articles that we humans learn best when in the company of other humans. I have also made the point that it is nonsense to teach children that they must “do their own work”. I am not contradicting myself when I advocate for discovering oneself and being the unique leader you want to be. It is a interesting paradox that humans do learn best with cooperating with others and interacting with others, but that we need to expend our own energy and leave our own comfort zones if we are to learn anything. Doing our own learning, however, does not mean isolating yourself from the input and assistance of others. We do learn by watching what others do and adopting some of their ways of being, adapting them to fit our personal values. Adopt, adapt and improve. We learn by giving and receiving feedback from others.
When Ackoff said, “If each part of a system is made to operate as efficiently as possible, the system as a whole will not operate as effectively as possible. The performance of a system depends more on how its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other,” he could have also been referring to each of us as individual systems within larger systems. Maximising our intellect without doing the work on ourselveswill not make us better leaders. As the WEF report says, part of learning how to manage in a VUCA world is related to growing “head” and “hand” skills. These are given greater impact when growing the “heart” skills. They are inextricably linked. If I was to ask you which was the most important organ in your body, you might struggle to answer. None are more important, all are essential and they all need each other in order to have a healthy and well-functioning body. Same thing applies. No use learning the latest tips for having robust performance conversations if you are shy of real encounter with another human being.
If self-development is a journey you wish to undertake, I would signpost a few things:
It’s divergent. All the answers don’t become apparent all at once. It’s unpredictable. If you are someone who needs to always know “why” before you do the next thing, you will need to learn how to manage your frustration. For myself, I have had to develop greater equanimity in the face of confusion. Breathing helps. I often wish I could show the same patience towards myself that I have with others, but there’s more grist for my mill. Sometimes the “why” is the last thing to come (if at all). Doing something which uses the word “toolbox” is probably not ideal because what you’ll learn about yourself cannot always be listed as an inventory beforehand.
It’s messy. If you are someone who needs to be in control, you will also need to learn how to manage your anxiety. Self-awakeness involves seeing things that we may not always like about ourselves and embracing them as part of who we are. It involves “crossing the threshold of your doubts and fears,” as Puig also says. I’ve had to develop greater balance in myself in order to help with this one. Recently, I received feedback about something and I literally felt wobbly. Nature and walking (or even better, walking in nature) helps me with this one.
It’s developmental. If you need “step 1, step 2, step 3″, you will probably need to let that go. Letting a two-year old take you for a walk would be good training for that. It’s not a linear “from A to B” sort of thing, it’s more like from “EH??” to “Be”: a meander from one interesting thing to another. The “heart” journey is one on which each step builds on the previous ones and each step reveals the next thing to head towards. You can’t plan this journey, but you can set your bearings to head in a direction. Developing more “flow” has helped me to meet this one. Travelling in Uganda, India and Nepal in my late 20s taught me about flow. I remember looking down from my hotel balcony onto a Mumbai street when I first arrived and it literally looked like a river flowing. You dive in and go with it or get exhausted trying to swim upstream.
Because the landscape is uncharted and confusing, this inner journey really can be quite unsettling. I recently challenged someone inadvertently on a belief they have of themselves. They knew that in a social workplace, it is important to be a good listener and empathic towards others. I could hear that they “got it” intellectually. When they said, “Of course I’m really good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from,” I naively asked, “How would you know that?” They blushed, the smile turned to worry and something seemed to unsettle them, almost like they had uncovered something they hadn’t encountered in themselves before. Rather than become defensive or brush it off, they boldly decided to dig a little deeper. Brave soul. We need courage to acknowledge our shortcomings (or at least acknowledge that we might have some!).
Using your powers for good? How would you know? Too many folks in business still operate out of an “egosystem” mentality and not an “ecosystem” mentality (thanks to Otto Scharmer of MIT). I still hear managers say to me, “I need to be in control of what happens around here.” Really? If we continue to operate unconsciously out of mindsets that are not conducive to a healthy system, what hope for business? Self-discovery involves becoming awake to our prejudices (Theory X anyone?) and our personally constructed glass ceilings.
Do you believe you are being supportive, empathic and compassionate? How would you know?
Do you think you know yourself? How would you know?
February 23, 2012
In the world of business, it is now almost a given that developing relationship skills are fundamental to success and achievement. Genuine collaborative relationships are proving more agile and effective at achieving good results than hierarchical ones. However, much of the business world still operates as if employment was a transaction and not a mutual relationship. Many folks also operate as if their associates, collaborators and customers are resources to be mined. I believe that business is more than a transaction; in the modern economy, businesses do not just succeed on the back of their relationships, in many cases the business IS their relationships. If we view others, whether they are employees, customers or associates, merely as transactional objects, it will be difficult to hold a picture of them as real human beings with needs, wants, feelings and viewpoints, and correspondingly to treat them as such.
Relationships are central to the work I do. Uncovering and developing strong social connection underpins the methodology I apply with clients, with a key deliverable being closer working relationships, and I would be remiss if I didn’t attend to my own relationships to the best of my ability. I know from my experience and my training that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationship between the people attempting to create that outcome. I would say that I am highly observant of how people relate to me and others and relationships occupy a lot of my thoughts, perhaps to the point of being hyper-sensitive to interactions between myself and others, as well as amongst other folks. I’m an avid people watcher and I think that relationships make the world go round.
One of my core beliefs is that people are not resources to be mined: for information, for their custom, for advice, for leads and contacts, for anything. Some of you may have worked out from comments on previous articles or Twitter that I love Radiohead. Lead singer Thom Yorke released a solo album a few years ago and the opening line of the first track goes, “Please excuse me but I have to ask, are you only being nice because you want something?” Ever felt that someone in your network or workplace was treating you like that? Taking a cynical approach and asking politely when it suits you is not the same as cultivating and nurturing relationships over time. Taking a consumerist approach and telling someone that you want to catch up only when you have need of them is not the same as valuing them. Letting your staff know that they are doing a good job only when you want them to be receptive to you is not the same as caring about them. Sending your “valued” customers an email with a special offer only when you need to drum up some new business is not the same as being attentive to them. Everyone knows that you don’t get far these days without being kind or polite, however, kindness and politeness are not the only ingredients to good relationships. People see through attempts to butter them up when the only time you are nice or make contact is when you want something.
Maintaining good relationships in our work requires some effort on our part. Whoever we relate to in our work, whether that’s customers or colleagues, I suspect we make the most impact on them when we make a meaningful, personal emotional connection with them. In order to do that, we need to deploy more than kindness. We need to get to know a little about what makes them tick. Empathy, or even more effective, role reversal, will help us to identify more deeply with others. When we make the effort to place ourselves in the shoes of others, our worlds change forever and when we get a deep sense of another’s thoughts and feelings, we cannot help but relate to them in a gentler and more generous manner.
It is hard to reverse roles with someone if we don’t have some modicum of caring for them. Why would we want to see things from another’s perspective unless we cared? This also requires some effort. Developing genuine caring for another is more than seeing them as someone who could be useful to us; it means we care for their success and well-being even when we don’t “need” them. If we add people to our networks like some sort of people collectors, they will sense this. The adage of “digging your well before you are thirsty” is not about storing people up like some kind of resource for the future; it is about growing mutually satisfying connections so that you are part of an active network that brings health and happiness to the whole. More studies are showing that we thrive on caring for others; my belief is that this is more than liking someone’s comment on Facebook or following them on Twitter. Caring is an active verb and if such studies are correct, it is good for everyone when we demonstrate care.
It is important to remember that authentic care, the kind that stimulates the “helper’s high” is a self-less care. Stephen G. Post, PhD, a professor of bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine says that “this profound state of joy and delight that comes from giving to others….doesn’t come from any dry action — where the act is out of duty in the narrowest sense, like writing a cheque for a good cause. It comes from working to cultivate a generous quality — from interacting with people.” He’s talking about altruism. I don’t think it’s crazy to think that we might do something self-less for a customer, a colleague or an associate once in a while.
What emerges over time when we actively show our care for others is trust. Trust is one of the most valuable currencies in business. Do our customers really trust us to deliver what we promise? Do our work colleagues trust us to follow up on commitments and to back them, so that they can do their work well? Do our associates trust us to share and collaborate generously? I don’t think I’m going too far to say that it wouldn’t hurt us to go the extra mile for people only because they will feel good about it. You can’t force trust, but authentic caring will necessarily nurture it.
While there is no “step 1, step 2″ failsafe method for growing good relationships at work, I’d say that kindness, role reversal, caring and trust are key ingredients. There are also some guidelines I find useful to remain conscious of in my work.
Keep relationships current. It can be hard to maintain business relationships these days. It is easy to get busy and let them go by the wayside. It is important to realise, however, that relationships are not an add-on to business; they are central to business. Devoting time exclusively to nurturing relationships should be seen as part of the work we do, not something that we do only when we have the time. You don’t get fitness credits; in other words, just because you exercised a lot in your twenties doesn’t mean that you can expect to be fit into your forties if you don’t maintain a fitness regime. Similarly, you don’t get relationship credits. True, someone may think well of you, however, we cannot ride on those favours we did or that really interesting conversation we had 4 years ago. We need to continue to nurture relationships. I’m advocating that we view relationships as more than simply “investments”; something we turn to on a rainy day. I believe that relationships are worth nurturing purely as good things in themselves, and if, one day, there is some mutually beneficial business that comes out of them, all good.
Relationships should be mutual. Like any personal relationship, a business relationship should be of benefit to both parties. How quickly do we turn off people who always seem to take without giving? How do we feel when people only call on us for help, but when we ask for theirs they are too busy or not interested? If we are good at relationships, we think of others often; not only what they can help us with, but what we can offer them.
Rupture and repair. Just like when you go on a first date, you get a first impression of a new colleague or associate and similarly, customers get an impression of you. If your first impression of them is good, you get the tingles and you want another date. If their first impression of you is good, they will be happy to see you again. Over time, we see things in others or others see things in us which are a little distasteful or we get let down or we sense that we have let them down. The key thing to remember is that relationships are a function of time and that when there is a rupture, we can repair. Customers want a response that communicates that you care they’ve had a bad experience with you and that you want them to have a better experience. Associates and colleagues want to hear you say, “I think I stuffed up and I want to put it right,” and they want to see you follow through with some kind of repair.
I will close with a proverb that I have learnt over the years I’ve lived in New Zealand. It is a traditional Maori proverb and it goes like this:
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!
What is the most important thing in the world?
It is people! It is people! It is people!
December 15, 2011
…is love sweet love. As Burt Bacharach and Hal David said, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘soft’ as the holiday season approaches, I have been reflecting on some recent conversations along with some experiences I’ve had through 2011 and wish to emphasise the importance of developing what are often called ‘people skills’ in our businesses and organisations. As Dr. John McGurk states in this rather excellent November 2010 study, “Using the Head and Heart at Work,” people skills are rarely neutral, that is, they have the power to influence in positive, as well as negative, ways. I don’t believe I need to make the case for superlative ‘head’ or ‘hand’ skills at work; those cases have long been won. Instead, I will bang on yet again about the need to hone our ‘heart’ skills. It is by deployment of our ‘heart’ skills that we facilitate more effective application of our ‘head’ and ‘hand’ skills at work. Now that our workplaces are becoming more and more relationship- and collaboration-based, the urgent need to develop greater ‘heart’ at work is before us.
I know most of you will probably feel that you have plenty of love and caring in your personal lives. However, we spend a huge chunk of our waking hours at work, usually with people that we haven’t chosen. We also have opened our eyes to the fact that we actually want our businesses and organisations to be places where we feel valued and appreciated, where we feel we are making a difference to others, where we can be human. It is a nonsense to hold on to an Industrial Age notion that we should leave our whole selves at the door when we enter our workplaces and simply offer up our brains or hands to be deployed as some manager’s resource. We want to care and we want people to care about us.
There is growing evidence that doing good for others and showing caring for others is also good for us. Two large studies have shown that older adults who volunteer live longer than non-volunteers. Indeed, altruistic emotions seem to override the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone. A recent study has also shown that helping and caring for others increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps us develop trusting relationships. If we have reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin when we are compassionate and caring towards others, if we feel good because of the unselfish good we do, it boggles the mind why we still endure workplaces that cause us to feel bad or where our good deeds go unnoticed. However, as William Glasser is noted as saying, we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves; if we change ourselves, others cannot help but respond to us differently.
If you believe that we get back what we give out, why not be mindful of opportunities to care for others with whom we work? One note about this do-good effect, though. Those studies which show improved well-being when we are compassionate towards others also indicate that this comes out of unselfish good deeds, not ‘dry’ acts of duty for others. Just as your boss won’t guarantee higher levels of engagement by faking care, consultation or listening, we can’t fake generosity. It requires genuineness and authenticity on our part; not simply clicking “Like” on Facebook.
For those of you who watched the video clip on empathy by Professor Simon Baron Cohen in my previous blog article, you will have heard about the monkeys who help other monkeys in distress. A bunch of rhesus monkeys were taught to obtain food by pulling on a chain. When a monkey was shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time the chain was pulled, they stopped pulling the chain. One monkey in this experiment went without food for 12 days. That monkey in particular would put some bosses I know to shame. Empathy at work is not discretionary, as it may have been for Victorian mill owners. If leaders want engagement, it requires something more than an annual Christmas bonus or staff party. It’s not just down to the bosses though. We all have a part to play in making our workplaces more human, too. We get back what we give.
So with this mounting evidence of how good it is for us to do good, let’s not play the “you go first” game. I suspect that care, concern and compassion for others at work is a self-reinforcing cycle. We do good, we feel good, we are motivated to continue doing good; and others feel good when we care for them, they begin to care for us more. I know that the opposite can certainly become a negative spiral as well. Make the first move.
Keep going on your path of self-awareness. Our interpersonal abilities spring out of and are inextricably linked with our intrapersonal abilities. In other words, the greater our self-knowledge and ability to identify, name and process our own emotional life, the greater our capability to recognise and respond to the emotional life of others. We can go on and on learning about ourselves. A massage therapist will learn the technique of palpation: feeling the body’s tissues for areas of tightness. With greater practice and experience, the therapist will develop greater acuity to feel smaller and smaller areas of tension that a beginner will not notice. We can similarly grow greater acuity to notice our own feelings, many of which we are unconscious to in our daily lives. As we acquaint ourselves with ourselves, our eyes also open to the smallest facial expressions, the subtlest body language and most obscure meanings in the words and acts of others. Tuning into ourselves helps us tune into others, thereby increasing our ability to care. Focus on your body right now: what is it telling you?
Notice others. Finely tune your awareness of what is going on for other people. Many of us like to pride ourselves on our abilities to work hard and get things done and we overlook the impact of our stresses and challenges. Too many people ‘suffer in silence’ at work and in some cases, people even leave organisations because they get burnt out. Some take the approach that if they couldn’t stand the heat, it was best they went, but most of the cases I know of are where highly competent, engaged and dedicated people left because they felt isolated and couldn’t sustain themselves any longer. It is these folks we need to watch out for. If we fine tune our awareness of others and do simple things to let them know they are appreciated, it will make an enormous difference to them. When people talk about how overworked they feel or how stressed they are by a deadline or a heavy workload, we don’t have to step it to try to fix it for them, but listening to them and letting them know they have a trusted person to offload can let them know they are not alone and they have support. Think about your co-workers: who needs some support right now?
Listen to others. We are busy, this is true. We often hear others, but much of what they say goes in one ear and out the other and in many cases, we don’t even look at the person talking to us. If we take the time to really listen to others, we have the power to make a difference to them. Ask anyone who volunteers on a telephone helpline. Listen to their words and listen ‘between the words’. Good listening comes from being present to what the person says as well as how they say it. It involves noticing what they don’t say and how they do this as well. It primarily involves turning off our inner monologue so that we do more than simply wait our turn to open our mouths. Think about a recent conversation you had: how much did you really listen? What might you have missed?
Develop the habit of gratitude. I was reminded of the power of gratitude by a close friend of mine recently. It caused me to bring to mind the people for whom I am grateful in my life; both for being a part of my life, as well as for the kind acts they show me. Imagine what that did to my physiology, my heart and my mind. I can tell you that his suggestion to focus on gratitude certainly intruded on the grumpiness I was sitting with at the time. As with altruism, developing an attitude of gratitude has been shown to increase our own well-being, reduce our stress and anxiety levels and encourage kinder behaviour towards others. I have heard of one business which has recently started the practice at their team meetings of each person thanking one other person in the team for something they did through the week. It has made it an even nicer place to work; everything we know about engagement points to a friendly culture being an essential ingredient. If there is a boss who wants to argue that caring for others at work is pointless, I will give them this Manager’s contact details. Think about your workplace: who or what are you grateful for?
All this stuff may sound a little ‘touchy-feely’, however, more of us are coming to acknowledge the power of these small differences that make big differences in people’s working lives. From a bottom line perspective, more is also known about the power of engagement. Engagement comes about because managers, leaders and others within organisations develop our capabilities to be human with other humans. People engage when they know that who they are as a person is noticed, supported and encouraged; when they know they are not a cog in a machine.
Two final thoughts about this subject; to paraphrase a famous advertisement for the RSPCA, real compassion, authentic caring and genuine altruism at work are not just for Christmas, they’re for life. What attitude can you change or habit can you inculcate in 2012 that will improve your working life and the working lives of others? And the last words go to Bacharach and David, expressed beautifully by Dionne Warwick. He goes on to say that love is “not just for some, but for everyone”. Who can you show more care for at work?
This article is dedicated to my father, Jack Wenger, who died on December 18, 2009. What I know from the people who worked with him as their Manager, he was a much loved boss who cared very much about the welfare of his people.
December 9, 2011
In the last few weeks, I have come across two fascinating pieces, both of which stimulated some thinking about organisational life. One was about empathy, the other about psychopathy in bosses. I have drawn on these two in the writing of this article and I hope that you will find some value here.
In my past, I have worked with a few clients who had been clinically diagnosed with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, the more accurate term for psychopaths, and I know how challenging it can be and the fragmentation people like this create around them. While I stress that I am not qualified to make a clinical diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder, and I would strenuously caution anyone else who is not qualified against doing so, there are some hallmark behaviours which can only be ignored for so long.
Scientists believe that about 1% of the general population would fit a diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder (ASPD). Studies show that as many as 4% of bosses would fit this classification. When we think of the word psychopathic, we tend to think of mass murderers and serial rapists, however, a psychopath may not necessarily be the Hannibal Lecter of our nightmares. The thing that most clearly identifies this kind of person for me is a lack of empathy for others.
Professor Simon Baron Cohen discusses empathy and says it has two components: cognitive and affective. The cognitive component is the drive to identify another person’s thoughts and feelings; the affective component is the drive to respond appropriately to another person’s thoughts and feelings. Professor Baron Cohen indicates that if you have one without the other, that wouldn’t be empathy. The psycopath might be able to do the first part, they might be able to recognise their victim has pain, but they might not have the appropriate emotional response of wanting to alleviate their distress. He goes on to say that empathy is on a spectrum. Philosopher Martin Buber suggested that the point along the spectrum at which you start treating a person as an object is when you become capable of cruelty.
As Professor Baron Cohen suggests, calling humans ‘resources’ seems to be somewhere down the left hand (lower) side of the bell curve of empathy. We have inherited, from the Victorians and Industrial Revolutionaries, a notion that people are resources to be deployed in the pursuit of profit. The moment when you shift from seeing people from an I-Thou perspective to an I-It perspective is when you switch off your empathy. I-You is where you recognise the person’s subjectivity. I-It is where you treat someone as a piece of furniture. Zero empathy is not good for the person, nor for the people around the person.
Professor Baron Cohen goes on to say that empathy is the most valuable of human resources. After much reflection, I would say that in the realm of business life, I would concur. Without it, I cannot see how organisations will thrive in the 21st century. With it, we have a basic foundation of resolving conflict and creating workplaces where people can find meaning, joy and genuine engagement at work. Without empathy and its expression, an organisation may survive, but the risk is that it is found wanting by those it wishes to engage and becomes irrelevant. A key point about empathy is that you cannot fake it, and those who work for a psychopathic boss know that.
Once again, while I caution against diagnosing the boss as a psychopath, here some of the things you would typically see in a low empathy manager.
- It is never their fault. Their default mode is to deflect conversations away from themselves. They minimise the effects of their improper actions and blame those on the receiving end (“They shouldn’t have spoken to me in that way.”).
- You are never right and you can never win. Add in the fact that they are the boss and any challenge you make to what you feel is unfair, a personal attack or unethical will be met with more undermining. They know that they are the boss and believe that they can do anything they like and they know it. When, on the odd occasion, someone calls them to account, they are clever enough to divert attention away from themselves and blame others for failures and mistakes.
- They run the business like it’s their personal fiefdom. They take the approach that you can either fit in or **** off. If you don’t like it, there is the door. Sadly, I have spoken to too many people who are living proof of the adage, “People join good organisations, but they leave bad managers.” In the current climate, however, people will be more reluctant to leave even an anti-social boss, lest they find themselves one of the growing number of unemployed.
- They sabotage, undermine and disempower as a matter of course and they lack remorse. They defend their anti-social actions and comments as being “for the good of the business”, but there is no such thing as a benevolent psychopath. If they are running the business as their personal fiefdom, that which is different from them is perceived and acted upon as a threat.
- They hold a skewed picture of the business. Lower self-awareness and a distorted view of self can lead them to maintain the fallacy that everything is just fine. They will maintain the illusion that it’s one big happy family, that everyone comes in and does their job and nobody complains. The ones that do complain are probably viewed as ‘difficult’ and the boss will do what they can to undermine and disempower. The tension between the boss and these recalcitrant workers is palpable and because the boss is a seasoned manipulator, they will deftly skew others’ picture of this person.
- They often successfully feign care and concern for others. These types of bosses are clever. They know that strong people skills are the currency of good leadership these days. On the receiving end of such inauthentic caring, however, you can feel it. It’s just hard to put your finger on.
- They disguise their anti-social behaviour with sophisticated language and reasonable justification. They have a charm that they can turn on and off as the situation suits them. On their journey to a leadership position, they have found it useful along the way to learn the sophisticated kind of language used to cover up and obfuscate, so their anti-social behaviours are hard to pin down.
- They display an easy contempt for people they don’t like or agree with. They tend to have poor ability to inhibit angry outbursts. They shut people and conversations down that differ from their world view.
- They put people down on a personal level. They lack caring and display a blithe indifference to the fact that they manage human beings with feelings, lives and stories to tell.
A psychopathic boss’s casual use of interpersonal violence can be breath-taking. In some cases, it washes over us because it’s so outrageous that we can hardly believe that someone, the boss no less, would behave in this consistently disrespectful manner. It’s not until we walk away and we recover ourselves that we realise that the wrenching we felt in our gut was to do with them. I have spoken with people who have been victims of a boss such as this, and they consistently report that it took some time before it dawned on them how inappropriate their boss was behaving towards them. We also like to think that we don’t come into contact with people like this; after all a psychopath is a mass murderer, right? We also tend to associate the words and actions of a bully with the sort of thing that goes on in school playgrounds and can’t imagine that we, now grown adults, would be on the receiving end of it.
If someone is determined to go against the psychopathic boss, they may quickly find themselves on the wrong end of dismissal. Because the boss knows they are the boss, they will find some way to manage you out, perhaps by placing such unrealistic conditions on your employment that they are unattainable or by isolating the ‘miscreant’ by setting them up to fail in the eyes of their peers. This way, they have some evidence to point to why this person just had to go. Some people who cannot see their way through end up leaving, but these are probably the people that the psychopath calls trouble-makers and will feel vindicated upon their departure. They will maintain that it was better for the business that they went and will be happier with a more compliant or acquiescent replacement.
I generally take a holistic view of people and try to see past unsavoury behaviours in order to seek out the personal value systems that underlie them, by way of finding a starting point for strengths-based development work. In other words, I like to give the benefit of the doubt. This has not always stood me in good stead and on a few occasions, I have erred on the side of generosity; it is on these occasions that I have eventually had to relent in the face of repeated anti-social acts towards myself or others and given way to the reality that the person in question was indeed, deeply lacking in empathy and care for others. While it can be tempting to reduce someone to a few of their ‘bad’ behaviours, I would still encourage you to start with generosity: give the benefit of the doubt. Goodness knows that the world could do with greater understanding of our fellow humans. Very few of us are truly selfish ‘bad eggs’ and I still hold that it is worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the first instance. Furthermore, it can be incredibly frustrating to be misrepresented based on a few forgivable misdemeanours in the workplace and to not be given the opportunity to apologise, put things right and make genuine efforts to adjust behaviour.
As frustrating as it is to be in the firing line of a low empathy boss, there are some things that we can do:
- Trust your gut. A common thread for those with a psychopathic boss is that they feel like they can’t trust their instincts about what happens to them at work. This is one of the things that these creatures create in those around them. Like Ingrid Bergman in “Gaslight”, you are probably not going mad.
- Talk with someone you trust about your experiences. Bounce your experiences off someone. Get things off your chest, it does you no good to store up your frustrations and stress. A trusted friend can also reflect back whether you are seeing things accurately of if you are making mountains out of molehills.
- If necessary, get some legal or HR guidance. Some common advice is to document everything. Check with a professional and get some guidance as to what you should be doing to protect yourself.
- Maintain habits that keep you grounded and connected to yourself. Get a massage, go for a walk in nature, play a musical instrument, meditate, whatever works for you.
As always, I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing how you have dealt with an anti-social boss at work.