Leaders have a tough role at the best of times. Even when things are going well they are constantly having to determine how best to use their precious time and energy.
As a leader, wherever you sit within your organisation, you’ll be juggling your own time and energy between various objectives, such as working towards goals, leading your team, managing stakeholders, reviewing strategy and focusing on individual team members.
The chances are that it is the individuals in your team that lose out when the juggling act begins to falter and a ball gets dropped. This may be because you understand the strategy, the goal and the task and what’s required of the team to be working towards them.
We tend to focus our attention on areas where we’re comfortable.
Paying attention to individuals and their situation, particularly if things are not going well for them, is something you may be less proficient at, and less inclined to do. So, faced with a team member who has some issues that it would be useful to address, you may feel more comfortable with shifting your focus back to juggling other balls and keeping everything moving along as well as you can, despite the individual’s issues.
But paying attention to the members of your team and supporting them with what’s going on for them as individuals is an essential part of your role as a leader, although it’s not always recognised as such by busy leaders with a responsibility to produce results.
A few days ago I was running a ‘Coaching Skills for Leaders’ workshop, and naturally got on the subject of empathy, and how it fits within a leadership context. All of the delegates on the course had some leadership responsibility and we had a fairly broad conversation about empathy; what it is and why it is important when having a coaching conversation.
Towards the end of this discussion, one of the delegates (we’ll call her Iris) could contain herself no longer and, in an exasperated manner, spilled out her thoughts on the subject.
“That’s all very well and good, but there’s still work that needs to be done.” Iris said.
I wasn’t too surprised by Iris’s comment, as this reaction surfaces from time to time from busy leaders. I asked Iris to say more about her thoughts on empathy. Iris continued in the same vein,
“Well, I can understand that someone may be having a tough time, and I am perfectly capable of putting myself in their shoes, but they’re there to do a job and they have to get on with it.” Iris said.
Bear in mind that this was a conversation about empathy.
I asked Iris to what extent she thought she might be demonstrating empathy if, in that moment as a leader, her thoughts were focussed on getting the task done. We then had a wider discussion around being present in coaching conversations with members of your team and actually focusing on them and their issues, rather than our thoughts being focussed elsewhere.
Iris seemed to appreciate the question I had asked of her, and when it came to the practical aspect of the course, and the chance to practice the skills, she was fully present. She engaged with her coaching partner, listened with interest and seemed to be empathic. Maybe not having to worry about getting a job done made a difference, but maybe there was a change in Iris’s thoughts on the subject.
Coaching skills don’t provide the answer to every leadership situation. There are times when other skills are required.
Empathy is just one tool in a leader’s tool-kit. It isn’t always going to be the difference that makes the difference, but in the long-run your role as a leader is going to be much more effective if you are able to demonstrate empathy when the stituation calls for it.