BOOK REVIEW: Why empathy is a far more powerful business tool than you think

Empathetic Leadership. 47 Practical Tips for Leading with Kindness, Courage and Confidence in an Age of Disruption, by Michael Brisciana.

When the business environment is under unusually stressful conditions, it is most likely and almost forgivable for managers to retreat from being their better selves. It is at times like this that we need to be reminded of the economic value of leading with kindness, courage and confidence.

Leading with kindness alone in stressful times, often results in decisions that are not in the best interest of the business in the short and definitely not the long term. Leading with courage alone under these conditions, often leads to decisions one only regrets later, if only in the way the decision was executed. In unusually stressful conditions, the confidence of all but the unaware is shaken.

Brisciana’s recently published book is a call to manage with kindness, courage and confidence. This three-part approach is subsumed under the general rubric of ‘empathetic’ leadership.

Empathy is having the capacity to imagine feelings that one does not actually have. It bears some similarity to compassion but differs in a profound way: compassion is not only understanding another’s pain, but desiring to mitigate that pain. Empathy doesn’t go that far, and leaders and managers should not be expected to practise it.

The book is a collection of 47 "tips" compiled by a reflective man. It is neither research-based, nor theoretical – rather it is the reflections of a thoughtful person. Brisciana has had wide experience in HR leadership in Fortune 500 companies, global manufacturers and distributors, and non-profit organisations.

Below are some tips I believe will be most valuable, here and now.

When employing from the outside is not possible and you need to fill a position, the default is to turn inward and "take a flyer on potential". Taking this option can still produce a very satisfactory result for the candidate and the company.

However, the decision must be made with eyes wide open. Because you are promoting on potential, you will need to do so purposefully and not hopefully. This requires that you proactively give the candidate all the help and support you can, not merely the permission to ask for help when its needed.

Building the confidence of all is a fundamental leadership requirement. When things get overwhelming, it is a leadership imperative. Brisciana suggests the tactic of breaking large tasks into manageable pieces, so that the task feels less daunting, and the person responsible can feel more confident in their ability to succeed. Along this line of thinking, it is prudent to formally give permission not to have to accomplish everything in one bold attempt.

Confidence can, and should be, built from the entry level to the executive committee. Brisciana’s confidence-building tips begin with reducing unnecessary pressure that might otherwise paralyse and overwhelm.

"Never assume that even the most seasoned members of a team are fully comfortable with all their responsibilities and objectives," Brisciana warns.

In the tip entitled "Engage all and root for their success" the author recounts seeing a priest invite all the children to come forward with their coins and put them in a special jar for donation to the poor. They ran back to their parents with smiles on their faces from the sense of having contributed, being needed, and being valued.

Brisciana contrasts this recollection with a time when he helped his Executive prepare for an important presentation at the company’s headquarters. On her return from that trip she reported starting out feeling nervous, but when she saw the CEO sitting in the front row, looking at her with a smiling face that said he was rooting for her to do well, she felt fine, and sailed through the presentation. Empathetic leaders remember that everyone on their team wants to participate and contribute. And everyone needs encouragement, including the most senior among us.

In the 1950s the psychologist Abraham Maslow published his famous article proposing that human behaviour progresses through a Hierarchy of Needs. His theory held that people don’t progress to a higher-level need until the lower-level need is satisfied. You don’t focus on finding your purpose in life if you are hungry or homeless or unsafe in other ways.  

The stresses many employees bring to work each day need to be borne in mind, lest we try to solve the wrong problem, often making things worse by adding new and unnecessary pressures to their employees’ work lives. Brisciana quotes a recent study that indicates that 92% of employees report that personal problems decrease their productivity, at least temporarily.

While one can expect managers to have empathy, employers are not in the best position to solve employees’ personal problems. That said, assessing performance issues in the light of Maslow’s hierarchy may help an empathetic leader to assess "whether their agenda for the situation matches what the employee is capable of at that time." Stepping back often allows one to see the big picture which is easy to miss when you are too close – either physically or emotionally.

We clearly need to celebrate the right heroes in our organisations: people who serve our customers or keep things running smoothly, too often without recognition.

The first step is to define who exactly we are looking for. The next step is to seek them out by actively listening and engaging at all levels of the organisation. It very soon becomes clear who the unsung heroes are.

The most impactful recognition is always direct; extending your hand and saying, "I know what you do for this company. I truly appreciate it, and I thank you." It is also important to publicly acknowledge these individuals so that others can see clearly what values and behaviours you appreciate.

Brisciana’s book is full of practical and wise advice. It is one of those books that should be read not to learn what you didn’t know, but to be reminded of what you do know. And then to practise better and more empathetic management.

Insights              High --+-- Low

Practical              High -+--- Low

Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and ‘The Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

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