Tough love is a concept most often used in parenting courses that denotes the ability to encourage responsibility from a foundation of deep love for another person. Empathy in the workplace can be seen as a form of tough love. Yet it is so often mistaken for something we do that allows someone to get away with something. Worse still, empathy can be associated with the feminine – something women do.
Yet, as leaders, we can deliver tough messages and show empathy at the same time.
Misperceptions about empathy lead to brushing off the leader who can show empathy as too soft, a push over, as taking the easy way out, as not telling it how it is.
These misperceptions fail to see empathy for what it is – a gift of self-awareness and responsiveness to other people in difficult situations. Leaders who can show empathy learn to deal with pressures in the workplace in a unique and courageous way. Empathy enables them to remain calm under pressure, respond well to criticism and help resolve conflicts by seeing the context in its entirety from multiple points of view. A military commander, for example, engaged in high precision warfare from a distance must be able to visualise what it is like for people on the ground, to see more than a target and make ethical decisions based on their capacity to see the whole context. Similarly a nurse in intensive care, cannot be solely focussed on the technical side of their work when there is a person and relatives or loved ones suffering.
Empathic people rather than being mushy and weak can be powerful. A person who shows empathy connects well with people and builds rapport easily because that they can see another point of view. This does not mean feeling sorry for a person or agreeing with their perspective (if you don’t). It does mean you have a capacity to accept feedback, criticism and divergent ideas. Empathic people seek out differences and can entertain a range of behaviours and attitudes within the one workplace.
People who underrate empathy tend to overrate being smart as if they are not compatible. Practising a middle road between the rational and the emotional is another skill of the empathic leader. This sort of leader can quickly and decisively weigh up both the human and instrumental cost of an action bringing out the best in people to achieve an outcome. Herein lies the art of compromise and artful negotiation. We can be too clever and dismissive of others or fail to see the wood for the trees.
The antidote to being too clever at work is to slow down, actively listening and reflecting back another point of view. Those who favour the bigger picture can accept that emotionally positive and negative behaviours are present in the workplace – as a leader it is within the interests of the enterprise to hear all points of view. Accepting feedback with an open attitude is another mark of the high empathy. An emotionally intelligent leader seeks examples of the issues raised and for actionable suggestions about how they could rectify the situation.
High empathy enables a leader to stop blaming and start negotiating. Paradoxically the person who points the finger and blames is not showing resolution of an issue but the easy way out. Scapegoating in the workplace is like a form of laziness and shows that the fear is the driving force. This sort of response from a leader creates an unsafe environment for those who genuinely want to improve their game and produce the best results.
Getting ahead in your career and in your personal life, we need to bring all capacities to bear – both our intellectual and rich emotionally textured worlds enable us to think in practical ways and collaborate in the workplace and in our families with others. Here are some tips to bring the tough love to work:
- Instead of arguing or agreeing straight away, ask questions of others that go to the heart of the matter. Seek out the views of others. Bring others along with you. Focus on the outcome. Persist.
- If the thought of having your work criticised makes your temper soar, take a step back and breathe through the discomfort. Seek out a common goal. Return to the conversation. What is the greater purpose here?
- A thoughtful response is always better than a heated reaction. You may feel your heartbeat quicken, and the need to defend yourself, but that feeling does not last forever. Let it pass. This is not all about you (how many times do I find myself saying this?)
- Be intentional. Ask yourself, are you responding in a balanced way with both head and heart? Acknowledging the heart of the matter will go a long way towards creating that workspace that feels safe enough to experiment, flourish and thrive.
- Replace a tendency to blame or jump to “solutions” with a tendency to seek options and perspectives. Seek a way forward that can quickly be arrived at globally. Agree to disagree when necessary. Accept people for being different.
- Be patient with those who lack self-awareness, stick with them, encourage learning. Show consistency and non-judgement in developing people. They will thank you for it.
Try it and See!