President Obama recently sparked an interesting dialogue about empathy when he stated that he would nominate a Supreme Court justice “who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract theory. … It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives,” to replace the outgoing Justice David Souter. In short, he wants someone with judicial empathy. This has caused outrage from some and applause from others. Regardless how you feel about this issue, it is interesting to see so much attention being paid to empathy within the context of the Supreme Court.
Personally, I am a definite believer that empathy has a place in leadership and business in general. That said, it must be properly balanced with power in order for long-lasting, sustainability to be achieved. Karl Long wrote a wonderful piece discussing this balance. Leaders must find a way to appeal to those that they lead and simultaneously command the respect of these individuals. Some people respect a leader who demonstrates care and concern for them. Others respect a powerful authority that leads based on a command and control approach. I have written about a related topic in the past in a piece entitled “Democratic Dictatorship“. In this piece I made the point that a leader is ultimately responsible to the organization’s best interests, not those of any particular individual. However, to be clear, this does not imply that a leader cannot show empathy toward individuals within the organization. On the contrary, it is often in the organization’s best interests to keep the people who work there satisfied. In fact, loyalty expert Fred Reichheld, has written extensively about customer loyalty and its direct linkage to employee loyalty. And in these turbulent economic times, nothing can be more important to a business than keeping the customers that they have satisfied; in large part, by keeping the employees they have satisfied.
There’s even real science to back up the power of empathy within a leader and the physiological effects that it can have on others. In a recent HBR article about social intelligence and neuroscience, the findings demonstrated “that certain things leaders do—specifically, exhibit empathy and become attuned to others’ moods—literally affect both their own brain chemistry and that of their followers.” For example, in performance feedback settings, it was more the tone and emotional signals given during feedback vs. the actual feedback itself that established the recipient’s attitude and feelings about the feedback. In essence, the way things were communicated were more important than what specifically was communicated. In fact, we can all recall seeing this same effect when talking to a baby or even a pet. If you speak with a particular tone, it is not relevant what specific words you are saying. In these cases, the words are not even comprehensible to the baby or pet, but the tone of voice is clearly what dictates their response.
What does all of this mean to you as a manager or leader? Well, if you want to get the best out of your teams, colleagues, subordinates, etc., use an easygoing tone and humor to engage the best neurons your folks have to offer! In one study, it was found that “top-performing leaders elicited laughter from their subordinates three times as often, on average, as did mid-performing leaders.” For business, it is true when they say, laughter is the best medicine!
Nina Nets It Out: A good mood can not only make your day better, but also that of the people around you. I guess this science has proven the French proverb “more flies are caught with honey than with vinegar.” Be sure to balance your own drive, ambition and intelligence with an ability to empathically and socially connect with co-workers, business colleagues, customers, etc.