Whether we work in an agency or inhouse, regardless of the discipline, most of us are, or will end up, leading, coaching or managing people.
But what type of person are we when we’re leading?
My very first PR agency boss, a kind-hearted Lancashire man back in England, gave me a bit of his wisdom that has stuck with me. He said: “Employees will often forget what you say. They will often forget what you do. But they will never forget how you made them feel.”
He was so bloody right.
Whether we’re in public relations, advertising, digital or media, we should all remind ourselves that behind every business and every pitch, behind the numbers and the triumphs, there are real people with feelings, just like you and me. A little empathy can go a long way.
And for the companies that do a good job of taking care of their people and showing empathy, the future looks promising. Look around you. Look at the younger generation coming into the workforce. Meeting the motivational needs of this new crop of talent is even harder, and empathy is something they demand, not expect. They want to have a relationship. They want to understand and they want to be understood.
It’s a conversation I recently had with people in my agency: whether ‘empathy in leadership’ is strength or a weakness.
The conversation got me thinking and after punching ‘empathy and leadership’ into a search engine, it was clear the topic is getting a lot of attention in both academic and leadership circles – lots of media articles, blog posts, papers and books.
One such article was written by Belinda Parmar, the founder and CEO of Lady Geek, published in The Guardian in August last year. In the article, Parmar says: “Lack of empathy in the workplace is one of the reasons that women find it difficult to flourish in corporations. In the technology industry alone, 41% of women leave before 10 years. Must the companies that make our machines treat their staff as if they were machines too?”
A searching question. I am sure we can all think of occasions in our working life where we’ve felt like a machine. There may be lots of people who still think that’s the case today.
This got me thinking about the people I’ve worked under during the past two decades of my PR career; and my own leadership style.
I’ve had leaders who have ruled with an iron fist and displayed zero feelings. Their mission was firmly focused on the end goal. We were just part of the delivery mechanism. There was certainly no effort to build emotional connections. It was cold and machine-like.
Thankfully though, I’ve also had leaders who were warm and genuinely cared about my feelings and were interested in me as a human being; making time to listen, to help and to understand. This was empathy in action.
It didn’t take me long to figure out the style of leadership I responded to and the type of leader I wanted to be. At the core is empathy. I will talk to my employees, take an interest in their opinions and feelings, listen and reflect on what is being said. I may not always agree with them, but it builds trust and makes us all feel a whole lot better. There is no doubt that empathy helps you become a better leader and create a much stronger work environment and culture.
That said, there are still people who think ‘kindness’ is a weakness in leadership. If, like me, you’re fairly easy going, people may think you’re a soft touch and can be taken for granted. Not true. If something goes wrong or someone is not performing for me, berating them is not the answer. Have a conversation, find out what’s going wrong, listen, and then take corrective action. You still have to lead and make a decision, but you don’t have to be a bastard in the process.
In her article, Parmar goes on to say that empathy is something individuals and corporations can become better at. But to get that change, it means “empathy cannot be perceived as a soft, feminine skill, but as a commercial tool that can be learned and deployed in all aspects of a business.”
It’s interesting and powerful stuff.
If you agree with me – great.
But if you’re not so sure and still need more convincing, there are many tangible benefits presented by seasoned leadership writer Tanveer Naseer in his blog post Empathy in Leadership – 10 reasons why it matters. After reading it, I think you will agree with me.
Either way, thank you for making the time to read this. It’s appreciated.
Graham White, group managing director, Howorth and Ogilvy PR