Otago Daily Times

Em­pa­thy and positivity in times of cri­sis the marks of a good leader

- Productivity · Lifehacks · Invercargill

THE Covid cri­sis has been the mak­ing of some lead­ers.

Among the or­gan­i­sa­tions I work with, I have seen the best lead­ers turn this cri­sis into an op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate how much their peo­ple mat­ter to them. One ex­am­ple was a leader of a medium­sized busi­ness who, dur­ing lock­down, sur­prised all their peo­ple with a gift pack­age on their doorstep and then ar­ranged a com­pany­wide so­cial cel­e­bra­tion by Zoom.

Ap­par­ently even the most tech­no­log­i­cally chal­lenged man­aged to join the event, mo­ti­vated by the gen­eros­ity of their leader.

At a re­cent work­shop I ran, a woman told me that, dur­ing lock­down, her man­ager texted her ev­ery morn­ing to see how she was do­ing, some­thing this man­ager did for all their peo­ple.

The woman ex­pressed to me how much it meant to her and how cared for and val­ued it made her feel. I could see the grat­i­tude and loy­alty for her leader that this sim­ple act had cre­ated.

In both these in­stances, our lead­ers knew just what was needed to make their staff feel cared for and ap­pre­ci­ated. They were emo­tion­ally in tune with what their peo­ple were go­ing through, and what would help.

Lead­ers’ in­flu­ence on the emo­tional state of their team can fall any­where from flatly in­struct­ing the team to “get on with it and stop com­plain­ing” to cheer­fully telling them that they are all sim­ply won­der­ful.

While the for­mer in­spires noone, the lat­ter can have a sim­i­lar ef­fect, if it is not sup­ported with com­pa­ra­ble ac­tions. When lead­ers are out of touch with their team — un­able or un­will­ing to see that their peo­ple are frus­trated, wor­ried or other­wise un­happy — any pos­i­tive and up­beat mes­sages only serve to cre­ate more dis­so­nance be­tween them­selves and their team.

‘‘Dis­so­nance’’ can be de­fined as a lack of har­mony among mu­si­cal notes, peo­ple or things. By con­trast, ‘‘res­o­nance’’ is the pro­long­ing of sound by re­flec­tion, or the syn­chro­nous vi­bra­tion of a nearby ob­ject. Res­o­nant lead­er­ship is the emo­tion­ally in­tel­li­gent leader see­ing their team’s frus­tra­tion or anger (and of course pos­i­tive feel­ings too) and em­pathis­ing, re­flect­ing and ex­press­ing these feel­ings for the group. A syn­chro­nous vi­bra­tion of the team’s en­ergy, if you like.

So if we need to un­der­stand, re­flect and ex­press our team’s emo­tional state in order to be an ef­fec­tive, res­o­nant leader, what do we do when our team is clearly feel­ing down, neg­a­tive, up­set or un­mo­ti­vated?

If be­ing cheery and pos­i­tive is go­ing to cre­ate dis­so­nance, then doesn’t that mean a res­o­nant leader would get along­side their team to whinge and com­plain with them?

How should a leader solve this quandary?

As with many things about lead­er­ship, the sit­u­a­tion re­quires you to walk a fine line and find a pre­car­i­ous bal­ance; in order to prac­tise res­o­nance, you do need to lis­ten, em­pathise and ac­knowl­edge the pre­vail­ing emo­tional state of your team. Some phrases you might use here are:

“I can see that you/the team are feel­ing a bit down to­day.”

“Peo­ple seem a bit off at the mo­ment.”

“I know that a lot of you are up­set and an­gered by X.”

“I’ve no­ticed we’re not as pos­i­tive as we usu­ally are.”

If you know the cause of the neg­a­tive emo­tional state, or once you dis­cover it, you can em­pathise with your team.

“I can un­der­stand how that would leave you feel­ing un­der­val­ued . . .’’

“I can see why this has been hard for you.”

In tak­ing these steps, you have “dipped your toe” into the emo­tional wa­ters of our team. What you can’t af­ford to do, how­ever, is jump into the pond and wal­low around in the mud with them. This can be tempt­ing, be­cause you want to stay con­nected to your team and re­tain their loy­alty, but it sim­ply makes the prob­lem worse by giv­ing them your blessing to re­main in their neg­a­tive state.

Hav­ing dipped our toe in, we now need to use our strength, skills and emo­tional in­tel­li­gence as a leader, as well as sup­port from around and above us, to lift our team out of their neg­a­tive state into a pos­i­tive and pro­duc­tive one.

We can do this by help­ing them to re­frame the sit­u­a­tion positively or to prob­lem­solve, by dis­cussing av­enues to pro­vide feed­back on their frus­tra­tions or con­cerns, help­ing them to re­fo­cus on the team’s pur­pose and to look to­wards the fu­ture. And by mod­el­ling a pos­i­tive, pur­pose­ful at­ti­tude.

Positively re­fram­ing a sit­u­a­tion does not mean ig­nor­ing or deny­ing the neg­a­tive as­pects. It means ac­knowl­edg­ing them but choos­ing to find pos­i­tive out­comes also, and to fo­cus our en­ergy on them.

Last year, I missed out on a big con­tract in In­ver­cargill, which would have pro­vided work for me and my team for months. It was hugely dis­ap­point­ing, as we had put count­less hours into the pro­posal.

Af­ter an ini­tial pe­riod of feel­ing pretty glum, I was able to re­frame the out­come and fo­cus on the pos­i­tives: I would not be spend­ing many un­pro­duc­tive hours in the car trav­el­ling, and I would have time to de­velop some new pro­grammes that had long been in the pipe­line and also ex­pand our Dunedin client base. These lat­ter two things would just not have been pos­si­ble if we’d been suc­cess­ful in our pitch be­cause it would have con­sumed all our time and en­ergy for six months.

An emo­tion­ally in­tel­li­gent leader is able to help their team to positively re­frame dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions while still em­pathis­ing with the dis­ap­point­ment, frus­tra­tion or anger the team is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. A dis­so­nant leader is dis­con­nected from their team — their team says they are “on an­other planet”, “in la­la land”, or “in their own lit­tle world’’.

When a team feels like their leader just “gets” them, it means they are on the right track as an emo­tion­ally con­nected, res­o­nant leader.

Sarah Cross is the di­rec­tor of Kakapo Con­sult­ing.

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