Leaders who lack the ability to empathise with their team especially in what seem to them to be trivia or unnecessary, make choices and act in ways, that undermine their ability to lead when they need to.
We’ve all heard tales of fathers who were ‘so busy at work’ that they couldn’t get home to attend the days at school that were special to their children. To the parent, it is easy to put an adult perspective on things:
They had to be there for an important meeting. If they hadn’t their commitment would be questioned and their job threatened. And they need that job to pay for the home, the food, and the holidays, that provide the right quality of life for the children.
Of course, it doesn’t seem the same to the child. To them the father is saying that his work is more important than them. Not showing up to sports day, to the school play, to prize day, and so on, are easy to see, but a father who prioritises his work in this way will be doing lots of other things that give the same message even if he doesn’t mean it and doesn’t realise that this is how it is being interpreted. Mothers are the same, of course, I’ve just illustrated the point by describing one parent.
Children compensate – they try countless strategies to get the attention they want. They develop ailments, they behave outrageously, they argue and fight. Others try to excel – they get exceptional grades in exams, they compete precosciously early in sports, they adopt bizarre or provocative dress styles and so on. Eventually, they give up trying to get that attention they so desperately wanted (and secretly still want) and instead throw themselves into other relationships – again, some precosciously early – the 13 or 14yr old girl who has rather too serious relationships with boys much older than her, the 15yr old boy who gets involved in gangs. The brighter ones go off to university, and have little to do with their parents after that, substituting the attention of a parent with that of peers.
And so I could go on, but this isn’t a blog about parenting, or work-life balance. The problem is that employees do the same thing with their leaders – not the seeking of attention (though some do that too) but reading into their actions what their priorities really are and drawing conclusions as a consequence.
We were shocked in Oxfordshire this week. On Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War in which millions of young men were sacrificed, for a couple of minutes we show our respect for those young soldiers, most of whom did not choose to be there, nor expected to die in such appalling conditions. Small towns (noticeably not the larger ones and the cities) stop – shops shut, traffic stops, drivers stand by their cars, pedestrians pause, babies are shushed, school classes halt. While all this was going on some chap, in the glare of CCTV, picked up a charity collecting box and hid it under his coat and made his escape. Ironically, the citizens of Oxfordshire responded promptly and gave more than the thief could have stolen in extra, often anonymous, donations. His ‘reason’ was his need to feed his drug habit. Yes, what he did was disrespectful but his priority was elsewhere.
I have spoken to quite a few people in the last few days and they tell me similar stories – of managers who just carried on as if nothing was happening. Now, of course, people have a right to choose what they do, but those managers are looked upon as leaders. They are expected to set an example. And to command authority the rest of the time they need to match their behaviour to the expectations of their colleagues when they can – and showing respect on Remembrance Day is a simple opportunity.
One person told me of a manager who picked up a box that one of his team had put down while he stood for the two minutes, and carried on with the work. Another of a Chief Executive who came out of his office, saw the staff standing, and went back in muttering something rude in a forced whisper. Another spoke of his sales manager, whose mobile phone went off in the middle of the two minutes – he took the call and was heard to say “Yes, their all doing it here too!” which suggests something about his caller too. People notice these things – they don’t say anything, they just notice, and know that your disrespect for the dead will translate into a disrespect for the living, and for them. Will they follow you for the extra mile? No.
I mentioned this to one of my colleagues and she rattled off a list of similar examples she has seen in recent weeks. A corporate responsbility manager published a report demanding that their employees cut down their carbon footprint, citing things they could do at home to ‘make a difference’, just before flying off to Bali on holiday. An HR Director who presented to a group of managers about the impending gloomy prospects for the business and the need to ‘cull’ only to head off in his chauffeur driven stretched BMW 7-series. A CEO whose staff were given a 3% pay rise last year, and yet whose company annual report published six months later showed that he had received a growth in income of over 35% in the same period.
Of course, each had an ‘adult’ explanation: It was her first ‘real’ holiday (ie foreign trip not paid for by the company) in a year. He had to get home to see his children whom he’d not seen for a week because he had been travelling all round the country telling managers about this forecast so that they all heard it ‘from the top’. The 35% bonus related to the year before and included benefits negotiated when he was appointed.
We have all come across these paragons of sensitivity and I don’t begrudge them their good fortune, I even understand the pressure and conflicting demands on their lives. But my old headmaster once told me; “Wilson, I want reasons not excuses.” and as far as I can tell, those adult explanations are the latter.
If you expect people to put in that extra bit of effort in these recessionary times… If you expect people to respect you and your authority… If you expect people to follow you over the top… then you have to put in some effort yourself. Not when you need the favours, but NOW, you need to demonstrate that you understand their perspective, that you are prepared to accomodate them and their needs as well as meeting your own.
We’re told that organisations and their managers generally lack ’emotional’ and ‘spiritual’ intelligence. It doesn’t take much to realise that this is as much the managers inability to empathize as anything else.
So next time, you find yourself juggling priorities and adopting an adult script, examine it carefully and double check the validity of the sentiments behind your decision and give some thought to how others, especially those you expect to lead later, are going to interpret your actions.
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