E2W Coach Zoë Copley - Leaders Listen Up
Katie.Dix / 31 Mar 2021
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Zoe Copley - Leaders Listen Up
In one of his most often watched talks, Simon Sinek states that leaders are not in charge, they are responsible for the people in their charge. His thesis is that the core elements of leadership are empathy and perspective.
I was training some leaders recently on fostering cultures of inclusion and psychological safety. We all know when we feel safe to make mistakes, be ourselves and express our views freely. And we all know the fear of speaking up, feeling monitored and micro-managed, excluded; our views not welcome. I asked the participants to reflect on situations in which they had not felt psychologically safe, building up to the a-ha moment: to feel safe we need trust, and trust is built on empathy.
There was some nodding. Until someone spoke up – no doubt feeling safe to do so – and said: this makes sense, but empathy cannot be learned.
Empathy cannot be learned.
I don’t agree. I happen to believe that almost anything can be learned if we apply ourselves, make time, and are motivated enough.
Why would we be motivated towards empathy? For leaders who spend their days focused on corporate strategy, targets, P&L, metrics, shareholders’ expectations and cost cutting, empathy is not a job requirement. There may be a nod to it in the event of reductions in force, but that’s really an HR challenge. A lack of empathy is not part of the problem. It follows that empathic leadership is not going to be part of the solution.
Yet for leaders focused on managing risk and motivating and equipping their people to succeed, empathy is game-changing. Indeed, failure to see this is an expensive blindspot.
When managers and executives step out of those strategy and metrics meetings and turn their attention to their teams, to communicating the plan and getting those sought after results, their effectiveness and success is determined by exactly this rare and seemingly unlearnable trait. To say nothing of the value of empathy in winning and retaining clients and customers.
Study after study evidences the value of psychological safety in driving results, innovation, collaboration, employee retention and wellbeing. Regulators, consultants, positive psychologists, behavioural scientists, anthropologists, executive coaches and ted talkers speak of it often. Yet somehow, despite all the evidence, studies and research, across multiple industries, sports teams, healthcare and education, the connection between the environment in which our people work and the outcomes and results, is still not really understood, on the ground by leaders and managers.
To get results and grow our business, we have to equip and enable our people to perform, thrive and learn. It’s not enough to have skills of setting strategy and targets, gathering resources and executing on tasks, while leaving the “soft” stuff to someone else. A target does not foster learning. A strategy is not the bedrock of innovation.
There are no results without the people. The people doing their jobs while fending off burnout, home schooling their children, caring for their ageing parents, nursing their pain and grief and anxiety between calls.
So what do we need to do better?
Surely taking some personal responsibility, holding a mirror up to ourselves and questioning whether our own behaviour and interpersonal style engenders trust and inclusion is the first step.
Then, avoiding words that might undermine our sense of power and security, be seen as too soft, or connote a special gift that we lack, let’s boil it down to Sinek’s definition: empathy is listening to understand.
Listening and curiosity. With a modicum of humility.
These may not be everyone’s strengths, but they are learnable, teachable. In fact, are they not inherent and natural, present in every child?
It’s time to relearn the skills of listening and curiosity. It’s time to practice these skills at home and at work. Instead of asking people to speak up, the onus is on us to listen and understand.
In the words of Churchill: "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen."
Simon Sinek: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyTQ5-SQYTo
For resources on listening: https://www.oscartrimboli.com/recommended-listening-resources/
McKinsey report on the impact of the pandemic on women in the workplace: https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/diversity-and-inclusion/women-in-the-workplace
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