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.
Successful Hybrid Leadership
If the last couple of years have taught us anything about leadership, it’s that the way we once led isn’t so fit for purpose in a hybrid or completely remote team environment. Yes, we need to be flexible, adaptable and keeping up with change at rates like never before. And then there are the fundamental things that, if we aren’t doing, will make it harder to adapt, lead through change and truly engage with our people. The things that if we aren’t doing them at a basic level, will erode trust. The trust you have in your team and the trust that you have in yourself to be able to lead effectively.
Below I hit the high points for what you can be doing to get the basics right in a hybrid or remote team environment.
1. Ensure alignment with clear directional objectives
Ensure your team are pulling in the same direction, no matter where they are located, and that everyone in the team is on the same page regarding the:
When we are clear and transparent about these three directional levels, your people will know where and how they need to be investing their energy. Importantly, our experience shows that it also creates a collaborative and connective team dynamic that is so essential for success in teams that are virtual or hybrid in nature. Be brave enough to ask your team how they feel about sharing their individual objectives; introducing this level of transparency can help reduce the psychological distance and increase collaboration when we realise that our actions, no matter where we are located, may be able to contribute to the success of a colleague and therefore the team. Track and discuss all team objectives openly and regularly – they are the binding factor of your team – so use them to your advantage.
2. Set Your Team Up for Success
When we don’t trust our people to get on with things in a remote or hybrid environment, this can often say more about us than our people. We’ll talk more about us a bit further on, but when it comes to our team, we can remove doubt by applying a couple of simple strategies:
3. Set Yourself Up for Success
The final word…Reflect
Carve out time each week to reflect on the team and yourself. This is a practice that is fast becoming a non-negotiable for leaders in a hybrid world that helps us stay in touch with reality, ourselves and our team. Reflect on yourself and your team through the lens of the points in this article. What’s working well? What could be better? Then build this discipline into your week, because leading to get things done through others is the big part of your job…and how we do this is changing faster than ever.
How often do we see it that the results of an employee engagement survey come out, and one of the main messages is that your leaders aren’t engaging enough. Whether this is due to poor communication, not managing performance or giving feedback, or knowing how to recognise or acknowledge their people. The reasons are often varied, and sometimes the survey output isn’t granular enough to let you know where the focus for development needs to be. But that’s not the purpose of this article.
What we often overlook is that results like this create some of the most unnecessary, and unspoken, challenges felt by managers. That is, the immediate pressure to become an engaging leader overnight. The idea that there needs to be immediate improvement is backed up by the rhetoric that comes with the results, the way they are shared (often without thought to framing, context or a supporting plan) and the fact that there will be another engagement survey next year and possibly some pulse surveys in between.
What is the Engagement False Reality Trap?
And in this moment we have created the ‘Engagement False Reality Trap’.
And this is why it’s a false reality:
If the above factors are even partly true, and the managers of the groups with the poor results are not great people leaders, then we tend to see the following scenarios play out:
How to avoid the ‘Engagement False Reality Trap’?
The premise of the Engagement False Reality Trap is that we place an artificial, 12-month timeframe on how quickly we should be building engagement and trust. So, the choice is simple; either offer meaningful development and support for developing engagement, or manage the expectations around what can realistically be achieved in a 12-month period. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking this can be solved with anything less than genuine intent to want to shift the engagement dial, and a medium to long-term outlook.
I read often about the idea that the aim of groups is to be able to ‘work together’. In the context of the world today, and what we've all been through recently (and are still going through), I wonder if ‘working together’ is enough? My experience is that if we are 'working together' then we are in a state of getting on with the job; doing what needs to be done to meet an outcome. In the past that may have sufficed, however we find ourselves in a position today where increasingly we are seeing transactional and administrative type tasks going the way of self-service and automation. This process is eliminating an important layer of ‘the work’ that we once got on with, and creates a new definition of what it means to get on with the job.
This new foundation layer is more transformational than it is transactional. It means getting on with the job in an era defined by continually changing technologies that influence rapidly shifting business expectations, and with a generation of younger, more world-aware, and ‘instantaneous’ employees. Underpinning this is a business environment influenced by global uncertainty, a more mature understanding and regard of the impact of culture and an environment that is more disrupted today than in recent decades. This shift brings with it a whole new set of challenges that redefines what it means to work and to lead.
So, coming back to my initial question…is ‘working together’ enough to ensure organisational success today? I think it’s a good start, though the real goal is to progress to the frame of ‘winning together’. The table below summarises some of the key transitions will help an organisation move from Working Together to Winning Together:
Whilst not every team or organisation could attest to being completely in the frame of Winning Together, when I speak and work with those who are fortunate enough to be in organisations who appear to be Winning Together, what I experience in the words they use, and see in the things they do, is a real sense of liberation. They speak of the freedom to experiment and exercise entrepreneurialism within a clearly defined set of boundaries. They speak of leaders who are more interested in feeding and guiding their energy around a task rather than micro-managing the task. Above all, they speak about how they are encouraged to bring their whole self to work…not just the part that completes the job. They fully participate in ‘how’ the job is done, and not just that it is done. They therefore have a vested interest in success, and finding ways to be successful; for themselves and for the business.
In addition, when we consider the literature on how to work with each coming generation, we know that ‘working together’ isn’t going to cut it for much longer. Anyone who is currently leading a team of Millennial’s will most likely already be cutting their teeth on the attributes listed in the Winning Together column above.
All of this is compounded by the impact of the pandemic and the shift to hybrid (and other) ways of working. I’m not sure that merely ‘working together’ will be enough to ensure organisational longevity and success. A 'Winning Together' mindset may be the new non-negotiable basis from which we work and lead. Importantly though, if you are to embrace hybrid or fully virtual teams, you will need to be mastering the Winning Together philosophy as a leader to ensure any measure of success...because what Winning Together looks like for a hybrid team will be different to a fully remote team and different again to a co-located team in the office.
For the first time in recent history, thanks to the pandemic, leaders of the world over are sharing the same impacts on the way they lead. Dealing with the volatility of change, feeling largely the same way (exhausted), and being forced to embrace different ways of leading to drive engagement and at the same time remain relevant. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was probably the last time we came close to this, but even then, we could still maintain social and business norms, and know that (if you still had a job) you could still head into the office. But not every country was impacted by the GFC in the same way that all countries have been impacted by Covid.
This is what makes this such a unique time in the world of leadership development right now.
When I think of the soft skills that will be necessary for leaders to be effective this year as we transition to living and working alongside Covid, there are three that stand out for me. Depending on where you are reading this article you may need to make some nuanced changes to what I’m sharing, but by and large, I do think these leadership skills should be making their way into the playbook of any corporate leadership development programs around the globe this year.
Have the Courage (and discipline) to Exercise Self-Empathy
We need to be in touch with what’s going on inside of us and understand how our mindset and emotions may be impacting our decision-making and behaviours.
Why is this important?
The last two years have not been easy, and right now we are heading into 2022 leading the fatigued, when we ourselves can be counted amongst the fatigued and battle-weary. It’s common knowledge that we don’t make the best decisions when we are tired, stressed or just not in the right headspace. It’s up to us as leaders to firstly acknowledge that it’s ok to be feeling a bit tired (even the most self-aware leaders would be coming into 2022 with some residual fatigue!). By making this acknowledgment internally, we are also making room for the same acknowledgment to be made amongst our team. This is a conversation that probably needs to be had sooner rather than later…is your team doing ok?
Being in touch with our mental and physical well-being also means we can do something about it so we can be setting ourselves up for success. There’s nothing selfish about this. How can we be fully present for our people if we are running low on fuel and barely making it to the end of the day or week? We can get in our own way on this front and inhibit our efforts to look after ourselves. Sometimes it’s pride, other times we can be unnecessarily self-sacrificing or just poor at delegating. Perhaps we just put ourselves second, whether that’s due to lower self-esteem, self-confidence, or other factors. Whatever the reason, own it and be brave; do something about it. Otherwise, the other factors below won’t be so easy to address.
Accept that Rituals are a Necessary Leadership Practice
The last two years could be considered practice for this capability; and this year could be considered ‘game day’! Before we transitioned to virtual and then hybrid ways of working it was taken for granted that we could more easily connect with our peers and team members and build relationships spontaneously and organically. That doesn’t mean we were consistently good at it, but that was our norm.
Now, we need to think about how we build relationships in a virtual world, where it is still normal not to have met your own manager, peers, or direct reports in person after many months. It would be nice to think that building relationships virtually has become easier, maybe even natural for some, but we can’t assume that we have nailed it. Because I can guarantee you that we haven’t. This year we need to get good at creating rituals with each of our individual team members that allow them to feel recognised despite the physical distance. (Have you checked out our Lead2Remotely Engage program?)
Rituals tailored to your individual team members creates the opportunity for trust to be built, and the space for genuine conversations and sharing. Equally important are rituals for the whole team; moments when you come together to connect and share. Rituals have always been important for building engaging relationships however it was seen as a ‘nice to have’…getting the job done always tended to be more important, especially in Anglo or Germanic cultures. We can’t afford to keep this mindset; not if we want a genuinely engaged workforce in a virtual or hybrid world. Creating rituals allows your people to feel connected with and to feel acknowledged. And when it becomes a ‘business as usual’ practice, it creates a natural momentum in your relationship that leads to trust and a reduction in the psychological distance that we are always aiming for.
Get Comfortable with VUCA Leadership
It’s going to be some time before we can settle into a normal rhythm without disruption driven by the pandemic. There are still factors we can’t be sure about, and even though we try to keep pace with and anticipate how things will be, the reality is (as we’ve all experienced) that we will get curveballs. Our ability to remain balanced, resilient and adapt to shifting norms is now a critical skill and mindset for leaders. In large complex organisations, this has always been the case and experienced leaders in global and matrix style organisations may already be well-versed in dealing with ambiguity. Now it’s time for leaders to make their peace with the V, U and C of VUCA, and not just the Ambiguity where the focus in leadership development has been for many years:
Volatility: The Volatility and rate of change we’ve experienced these last two years isn’t something we should be looking back on and thinking ‘thank goodness that’s over with’. This year effective leaders will be reflecting on that volatility and what they learned about themselves, and who they were as a leader, throughout that time. The questions to ask include:
Uncertainty: Over the last couple of years, to what extent did we as leaders offer a version of certainty in the daily lives of our team when not a whole lot else seemed certain? If we weren’t exercising much self-empathy, and were leading inconsistently, then we mightn’t have offered a whole lot of structure or certainty. When we put ourselves in the shoes of our team, the one thing that isn’t changing daily are the people in my team and my manager. And at a fundamental level, that is a form of structure and certainty that we often underestimate as leaders. So; to what extent did you offer certainty in the lives of your team – and what can you be doing to improve it for 2022 (and beyond)?
Complexity: An essential skill always, and a little more necessary today than previously, is the ability to extract yourself from the day to day so you can see your whole landscape. Sometimes referred to as taking the helicopter view, it’s also an opportunity to take a more rational view of your world. It’s one of the simplest ways to make sense of the complexity that can sometimes seem overwhelming. When our senses are being battered from all angles, our ability to rise above it and see things for how they really are is a life saver. Whilst ever the pace and volatility of change remains moderate to high, this capability is often your best counter-measures.
What missed the cut?
Of course, there are many other capabilities that will support you as a leader in the context of this year and some that fall just outside my top three include being able to have meaningful conversations, creating a healthy virtual/hybrid team culture, leading collaboratively and leading change. However, even these capabilities rely on my top three to be effective.
As the globe begins the transition to an endemic view of Covid, there will be a higher frequency uncertainty in our lives at home and at work. No, they may not be as high impacting as the experiences of 2020 and 2021. But they will require that leaders maintain forward momentum so that their teams can see how they need to be investing their energy each day, week, and month.
The three capabilities shared here offer leaders the best opportunity to do this in 2022 and beyond.
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and organisations.
One of the greatest challenges, and inhibitors, to building a high trust and engaging relationship with your team is time. And this is for two key reasons:
1. Relationships Develop Naturally
When have you ever experienced a moment in your life when you've said to yourself, "I need to build trust with this person in one month" - or something like that? Probably never. And for good reason too. Relationships evolve over time; sure they follow a set of steps in the way they develop, but there is no timeframe attached. In fact if you have ever tried to force the development of trust, or have been on the receiving end of someone trying to force the development of trust, you've probably taken longer to get there, or not gotten there at all. When we accept that leadership in a team commences in a place of Unconditional Leadership, a time in the relationship when we are responsible for building rapport and creating a deep sense of recognition in the hearts and minds of our people, we accept that each relationship will take a different course and require slightly different needs to help it develop.
2. Timeframes and Relationships Don't Mix
The minute we attach a timeframe to the idea of achieving an engaging and high trust relationship with someone is the minute we put artificial, and irrational expectations on our shoulders to achieve something that may actually be impossible to achieve. Yet organisations do this with their 18 month employee engagement survey cycles...they are effectively saying that you need to have built an engaging relationship with your team by the time a survey period starts. This can force leaders to push through the early stages of relationship development and leap straight into the high trust stage of the relationship where the expectation is that our team members will just open up and be vulnerable. But who's going to do that with someone they don't know? We don't just do that unless there is a pre-existing relationship and we feel safe enough to do this.
So, in short, if you want to develop healthy relationships with your team remove timeframes (they are really time barriers), and invest the time in establishing a rapport with each team member in ways that acknowledge who they and at what point they are starting the relationship.
Want to learn how to be an engaging leader? Take our 12 week Lead2Engage Inner Circle course and start your journey toward more meaningful and authentic leadership. Click here for more information...L2E Inner Circle
Author: David Morley
David is a developer of global-minded leaders, teams and organisations.
There are plenty of times at work (and in life) when we want to gain the cooperation, buy in or consensus of those around us; whether they be a manager, colleagues or an employee. So what’s the easy answer? Well, in my experience there is no easy or perfect answer; but I have encountered a couple of methods that tend to bear fruit
Is it me or is it you?
If you are continually struggling to build a relationship or gain the collaboration you are looking for, perhaps it’s time to take a step back and do a simple 'is it me or is it you' analysis that will provide you with enough information to decide a way forward.
Is it Me?
The best way to see a different result in others is for you to change your behaviour, and possibly your way of thinking, first. Make this your first port of call when trying to get a different result in your relationships with others. Look at what you can be doing differently. Ask yourself “Is it my style, tone of voice, body language or the words I’m using?”. And remember if you don’t believe what you are saying, your body language will be a dead give away! At the same time, the old saying ‘do as I say and not as I do’ comes into play here as well. Are you asking others to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself? This too becomes evident quite quickly...so choose your words and actions wisely!
Is it Them?
Once considering your behaviour, and if you are still not getting the buy-in you are looking for then perhaps it’s time to consider whether the people you are engaging have either the desire or the capability to do what you are asking. Look for signs that let you know whether it is desire...or lack of desire!
Do they look disinterested or unmotivated at the thought of what you are asking them to do or buy-in to? The easiest way to confirm your suspicions is to ask them. Other signs are that they are late or don’t show up to meetings on the topic or say that they are interested, but when you delegate there is always a reason whey they can’t help out. If it's lack of desire on the topic that's getting in the way then your strategy should be geared around ways to involve them, or empower them to take the lead on the subject. When it's an attitude thing all you can really do is provide opportunities for them to see that what you are asking them to be involved with really isn't so bad. However if what you are looking for cooperation for really is unexciting, then you may have to accept that you will have to step up in terms of engaging leadership and find ways to try and make it interesting...and be honest with them from the outset about the banality of the issue and not make it out to be something it's not.
On the other hand, if they insist that they are ok with what you are proposing then perhaps it’s an issue of capability...do they have the skills or experience to do what you’ve asked them to do? Are they out of their depth? This can impact on desire as well. Engage them in a conversation on the topic, ask technical questions and involve them so that you can determine the level of knowledge they have on the topic. It’s easy to presume that others have the skills and knowledge required...and hard when everyone realises too late that they don’t. If it is skills then it's easy to organise opportunities for development or experience; whether it be training, coaching or shadowing on the job.
Channel not Change
If the person you are looking to get buy in or collaboration from is openly resistant that’s a great start...after all if they are passively aggressive you usually don’t know it until it’s too late that they aren’t happy or really don’t buy in to what you are promoting. But if they are acting out with energy then you know what their position is, and you can do something about it. With these people I find that a more effective strategy is to channel the energy...something you can’t do with more passive behaviours. Involve them in the discussion regarding a solution, remembering that when questions are asked this doesn't mean they are against the idea or don't want to help. They may just be trying to make sense of what you've asked of them. But even if there does seem to be an active resistance, at least you know it, and you can therefore work with it. This is your chance to engage them and channel their energy toward a solution rather than do what everyone else does and push them away or disagree with their position (which reinforces, and in their mind justifies, their rebellious behaviour).
The Empathy Factor
These are just a few ideas for increasing your chances of collaboration or buy-in that have worked for me over the years. However the most important element that underpins all of these suggestions is very simple. When looking to gain the support or cooperation of others, approach them in a way that you would like to be approached. Don't just tell them what you want; give a why. And allow the opportunity to save face if you are seeking cooperation to a change that impacts them personally. After all, sometimes it’s hard to change our way of thinking over night, and some behaviours are deeply ingrained and gained from years of being the accepted way of doing something. The more you allow the opportunity for buy-in to your message in a way that protects sense of self, the more you improve your chances of collaboration or buy-in.