Reading the Room for Better Empathic Leadership
Can you read the room?
This may seem like a small question, but for leaders in large, matrix and complex organisations, the answer can have big implications. In Australia, and throughout the Anglo-world, we are conditioned to be quite explicit in the way we communicate. Being explicit means stating the obvious and working with the obvious. But as we all know when we are working with the obvious, we can miss the nuances in a conversation or the underlying dynamics playing out in a team. And there’s the catch. Even though we are living and working in a culture where being explicit is a requirement, we are leading, and working with, people. And we are just a bit more complicated. We will engage in passive-aggressive behaviours. We will pay lip service. We will want help but not ask for it. And that’s where our ability to really be present in the moment counts. It’s where we pick up that small inflection in the way something is said that alerts us that everything may not be as it seems. Like a colleague who walks out of a meeting as soon as it finishes without so much as a thanks or bye, when this is the one person who would normally be last to leave and engaging in the small talk as you leave the meeting. It’s the little things like this that may not be something; but they may just be.
If reading the room isn’t your strong suit that’s ok. The good news is that it’s something you can practice and get better at – even if you don’t master it. The three things you can do immediately are:
Picking up a small cue, or interaction between team-members in a meeting can allow you to adjust course in the moment or ask a question that allows a voice to be heard that can add value to a conversation. Reading the room simply offers you the opportunity to lead and engage in a more empathic way.
Using Dialogue to Build Trust & Engagement
Dialogue. For many people, let alone leaders, this is a scary concept. However for a leader, dialogue is often the single most important activity that can establish your credibility, solve issues, pre-empt issues before they need solving, and bring a team closer together. In a team that is already close, regular dialogue is a key contributor to maintaining high trust and engagement.
In the wider organisational context, dialogue can do all of the above and more, especially when deployed throughout significant change events.
As a leader, consultant and facilitator I have been using the power of healthy dialogue as the key medium for helping:
Outside of anything I've done, there are countless examples of really good leadership where dialogue has been the main tool. One example that comes to mind was that of a regional CEO of a global pharmaceutical company who turned his poor performing executive team and business around through the use of effective dialogue. He learned very early that his regional executive team were not connected; they were not a team. Silo's were present in his team, and this was reflected down through the organisation with poor collaboration and communication. One of his first team leadership tasks was to have the executive team meet for one hour...everyday. The purpose of the meeting was simply to talk. Sometimes there were specific topics, but mostly it was about the connection that comes with mature dialogue. In a short space of time his team went from begrudging the daily hour, to looking forward to it. This was simply due to the natural sharing, personal and professional, that occurred...everyday. Soon the silo's started to disappear, collaboration increased and natural solutions to problems started to occur. Best of all, the team started to build a rapport and momentum that was reflected down through the organisation.
So let's take a brief look at what I mean by dialogue, and some tips based on my own experiences for how you can use dialogue as an enabler of growth.
If you want to facilitate a conversation with your team that is more exploratory in nature, like solving an issue in the team, brainstorming, teaming etc... the following guidelines are critical.
My final thought with regards to dialogue relates to you; the leader. To use dialogue constructively you have to trust yourself as much as your team. Why? Because the agenda is unknown, and driven by the group. This can be seen as giving up the 'power' that comes with being a leader. The only thing you are controlling is the flow of conversation, and working with the energy in the room.
The risk with using this approach is potentially high, simply because it isn't what people are used to, and everyone is invited to be 'present' to the conversation in a largely non-traditional and non-structured way. And as mentioned above, the leader or facilitator, takes a slightly different approach to leading the meeting.
Having said that, the risks may be high, but so are the rewards.
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and companies.
The first six months of this year have been quite inspiring for me. I have worked with leaders from many countries around the world, including; Poland, Germany, Romania, France and South Africa. In this mix there were countless ethinicities, sub-cultures, religions, countries of origin, languages and expectations.
In this time I have learnt, all over again, the power of connection, of tolerance and of unity. Especially with the leadership group in South Africa where this group of blacks, whites, and their various subsets of ethinicities are responsible for role modeling for their workforce what it means to work together, and to win together.
Dialogue is powerful. Dialogue that is nurturing and adult by nature leads to rational and self-sustaning outcomes. How can it not? In these states dialogue has its best chance of being thought through and empathic. It has its best chance of being authentic...real.
I have witnessed people, through dialogue, realise that they didn't have to give up their culture...who they are. Rather, they could bring the best of who they are to the creation of a shared identity. An identity founded on understanding what is important to each of us. An identity created out of a desire to want the best for each other, and for ourselves...and realising that you can't have one without wanting the other. After all; how we see ourselves, is how we see the world.
I am grateful that I have been able to create an opportunity for these people to do things differently. The ability to create healthy choices can never be underestimated...and in business, this is the job of an effective leader.