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Empathy in overdrive

February 15, 2016

eeIn my former life, I was an operations director at a luxury downtown hotel. Sitting around the executive table, I would be asked or simply comment on how the employees might feel as a result of a decision or a shift in strategy. Often my perspective was seen as the devil’s advocate as I attempted to shine a light in an area dark for the others.

Not surprisingly, I was the one in the group that had measured the highest empathy ratings in our latest team assessment tool. Despite the ridicule I endured, I wore this badge proudly.

Upon reflection, it is clear that what was really happening around the executive table was a shift in organizational values. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing this, I dug my trench and set up my defenses. Clearly, I was the only one who cared about the people!

In my trench, I worked really hard at understanding my employees and sheltering them from the big bad wolf. Instead of sharing strategy and developing decision-making skills I chose to protect them. Instead of building an external network and seeking out new ways of doing things, I became more insular.

Since 2006 when I began my coaching practice, I ‘ve had many conversations with leaders who have fallen into the same trap. I term this the Mother Bear Syndrome. – The need to protect and keep your cubs safe from danger. The paradox is that I became the danger.

What I should have been doing was developing critical thinking skills with my reports, collaborating across the organization and seeking innovation from both inside and outside of the business. I should have seen this as an opportunity to broaden my perspective by building relationships with people that did not see things my way.

Over time my leadership lost steam. The divide in organizational values became greater. This experience has taught me many things about leadership and the value of keeping your empathy in check.

Here are 5 strategies to ensure your empathy is not in overdrive

    1. Spend more time understanding the organization’s strategy and how you can make an impact. When the strategy shifts in a direction you don’t support, fight the urge to disengage. Your ability to get curious, gain clarity and involve your team in the challenge will help shape your future and the future of your organization.

    2. Build relationships with the people you are not aligned with. My experience has taught me that if you dig deep enough you will find common values and gain understanding on how to work together. Remember that you will not be able to increase your leadership influence by retreating.

    3. Build your network across your organization and beyond. Work to discover best practices and new ways to accomplish your goals. The answers are often right in front of us but if we have our head down, we miss them.

    4. Don’t be afraid to challenge your people and create some level of discomfort. Highly ambitious goals can create a healthy competitive environment that will both motivate and build your team’s resilience.

    5. Don’t become one voice. If the only perspective you bring to the table is one, you will become predictable and others will tune you out. If you really want to be heard do a better job listening.