Leaders must not strike fear into people

Sometimes leaders have the aloofness that is driven by their misconception that they have to keep a distance between themselves and the people they lead.

Systems Think Sam Hlabati

In the last instalment of this column, I had no kind words for the commonly talked about “open door” policy.

I spoke of the need for the leader to stand up, close their office door behind them and to go to the people. That is a better openness policy because a good leader does not wait for people to gather the courage to come to the “big office”.

When a leader goes out of their office, they will get to understand better the issues troubling their team, they will be able to interact with their team from their context.

It is paramount that a leader understands the situations within which their team exists.

Beyond the work environment, the employee has an economic and social existence that affects their morale, and consequently performance at work.

A leader should have compassion, empathy and in general the ability to put themselves into another person’s shoes.

Understanding situations from others’ perspectives will always help one comprehend situations better. There is a famous proverb that says: “Before you criticise a man, walk a mile in his shoes”.

This saying has its known origins in the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans, who said: “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes”. Nelle Harper Lee, an American authoress, said in her book: “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “You never really know a man until you understand things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

There are some who take a different spin to the concept, making harmless fun of these great words by saying: “Before you criticise someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way when you criticise them, you are a mile away from them and you have their shoes.”

What is being advocated in this article is that the person who walks in the other’s shoes should walk a proverbial full circle and come back to the owner of the shoes. The idea is for one to understand another’s context, not take over their shoes!

It is folly for a leader to think that the employees are in the organisation should ensure that their personal matters should not affect their work. Such views of the world of work can be liked to thinking that people in organisations are programmable machines while at work, and become human beings the moment they knock off from their duties.

I am not sure if any leader who thinks as such needs to enrol for Psychology 101; maybe the most appropriate Psychology course would be at kindergarten level. Statements affirming this misconstrued thinking should never be uttered in public, next time you are about to do that as a leader, bite your tongue.

It is impossible for a leader to have personal experience of each of their team member’s personal current life experience; however the bridge can be crossed through interacting with the people from within their context.

There is some benighted thinking that says that a leader should keep their distance, based on the thinking that if a leader is too close to the people, they will be influenced. I believe that a leader needs to be close to their people, and foremost a leader should empathise with their team.

At its core, empathy is the lubrication that keeps relationships running smoothly. The fact that empathy is an important component of effective relationships has been proven through research as seen from the studies by Dr Antonio Damasio (António Rosa Damásio; a Portuguese-American neuroscientist/neurobiologist) in his book Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, in which medical patients who had damage to part of the brain associated with empathy showed significant deficits in relationship skills, even though their reasoning and learning abilities remained intact. This was because the particular patients’ right brain which is responsible for empathy had been damaged.

Formal definitions of empathy take it as the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. It is the very capacity to recognise the concerns other people have; just the very concept of putting one in another person’s shoes. Empathy allows people to create bonds of trust, by giving insights into what others may be feeling or thinking. It thus helps in the understanding of how or why others react to situations in the way they do.

Leaders are hired for their business acumen, that is their ability to adapt and survive in the business environment; informing the decisions that are made to keep the organisation sustainable. I would take empathy as the “people acumen” as it is the base for the leader’s ability to survive in the “people environment”, it informs the appropriateness of the decisions that leaders make in dealing with people.There are abundant studies that link empathy to business results; correlating empathy with increased performance.

Indeed, increasingly, the topic of empathy is becoming eminent in the business world. Daniel Pink,(author of five books about business, work, and management that have sold two million copies worldwide and have been translated into 34 languages) in one of his books A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age, predicts that power will reside with those who have strong right-brain interpersonal qualities.

Pink cites three forces that are causing this change: Abundance, Asia, and Automation.

“Abundance” refers to our increasing demand for products or services that are aesthetically pleasing; “Asia” refers to the growing trend of outsourcing (derived from the thinking that everyone looking to Asian countries for outsourced expertise) and “automation” which is self-explanatory.

In order to compete in the new economy market, Pink suggests six areas that are vital to our success, one of which is empathy; which is something that that can never be automated, outsourced because it is about the leader’s ability to imagine themselves in someone else’s position.

Thus imagining another’s feelings and understanding what makes the team members tick.

Empathy is also particularly critical to leadership development in this age of young, independent, highly marketable and mobile workers. In a popular Harvard Business Review article entitled What Makes a Leader?, Dr Daniel Goleman isolates three reasons why empathy is so important: the increasing use of teams, (which he refers to as “cauldrons of bubbling emotions”), the rapid pace of globalisation (with cross cultural communication easily leading to misunderstandings) and the growing need to retain talent.

Sam Hlabati is a Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). E-mail samhlabati@gmail.com; twitter handle; @samhlabati.