Leaders must replace Empathy with Compassion

Leaders must replace Empathy with Compassion

Recently I worked with a wonderful group of leaders who I was training to become in-house workplace coaches (a voluntary focus alongside their normal leadership and work duties – very cool).   As the skills of this group have been increasing, so has the depth and value and power of the conversations they are having – which inevitably leads to supporting their ‘coachees’ with real and challenging issues, often creating emotional responses in the person being supported.   This is natural, and human and useful if handled well.   One of the challenges though, is that many of the struggles of their colleagues are either shared by the coach, or of a nature that the coach’s natural and wonderful empathetic response causes them to be drawn into the emotion as well – not so useful. When we have experienced the same or similar situations in the past, we start to relive those experiences again through the present conversation.   We have been told that empathy is good, that we should seek to understand the situation of others and put ourselves in their shoes. This is sort of right.  

I’d like to challenge the idea that leaders need to be empathetic.

  I’d like to suggest that leaders need to focus more on being compassionate with people, rather than empathetic.   When relating to and supporting others, your personal response can take two forms: empathy or compassion. Let me explain the implications of each of these.   During an empathetic response, you emotionally absorb the feelings of others. Empathy is an amazing human capacity, essentially allowing us to literally feel the pain or joy of others. When a loved one is in trouble or pain, we have the capacity to live their lived experience, and for good reason. No empathy would lead to abandonment and loss of caring.   What an empathetic response does, however, is light up the same regions in the brain as those lighting up in the person of interest – usually pain. When others are in pain, you are then in pain, and that response inhibits your capacity to be objective, to think totally logically and to support that person in a useful way. Your capacity to be totally present to others and to the most useful way to support them is diminished whilst you deal with your own feelings, and eventually you can be drawn into the drama of the situation.   Conversely, a compassionate response is a response of kindness through objectivity. Compassion stimulates oxytocin (the trust hormone), dopamine (the reward hormone), and serotonin (anxiety reduction), leading to happiness and optimism. It’s a bit like the concept of ‘tough love’ – in order to help the most, sometimes you have to be the one to hold the line – like denying your child the opportunity to attend a party when they have been naughty – those ‘learning moments’!   Take some time this week to notice your responses to the challenging situations brought to your attention by others. Is your response empathetic (emotionally non-useful) or can you be present to supporting them from a place of useful compassion?   Have a great week.    
Green Tea and Dark Chocolate

Green Tea and Dark Chocolate

For the fourth year in a row now I have posted this blog as a kick off to a new year.   Those who know me well know that I cannot live without my green tea; and dark chocolate, whilst attempting to reduce its influence on my life, still holds its own on my Five Essential Foods list. Having said this, I’ve been venturing into the ‘Skinny Cap’ coffee world last year, but Green Tea and Chocolate are still my go to!   I’d love you to share this idea with your network…a great way to begin the year and get focused.   Enjoy!
  Your brain has access to around 11 millions ‘bits’ of data at any one time, but can only process around 100,000.  Your capacity to focus on more than one thing is quite limited.  So having a theme for the year rather than a long list of goals and new year resolutions has served me well over the past few years.   The RAS (Reticular Activating System) is a useful little part of your brain that decides what data – from outside and inside your body – your brain will pay attention to.   The issue to consider is whether the choices your RAS is making are useful for you!   In the absence of any direction from you, the choices and decisions your RAS makes will be…
  • random, or
  • based on your past instructions or interests or random thoughts, OR
  • in line with a more primitive decision-making set of instructions designed to ensure your survival.
  In light of this, taking the time teach year to give my RAS the gift of a solid ‘theme’ for the year has served me well.   For example, my theme back in 2014 was ‘PROFILE’– I wanted to raise the profile of my business and my expertise to attract new clients.   What happened was three-fold:
  1. I started to come across (and pay attention to) more opportunities to raise or contribute to my business and professional profile.
  2. I was proactive in making decisions that supported that particular outcome over other potential outcomes.
  3. I was more likely to act on such opportunities than I would have been in the past.
  As a result, I more easily achieved my business objectives than I had anticipated.   In the absence of a well-thought out ‘theme’ I would probably not have paid as much. Or any attention to the opportunities. Or I may have tended to continue to make decisions and choices similar to the previous year (stay in my comfort zone). Or I may have failed to overcome my inertia on acting on the opportunities due to a desire to protect myself from the risk of doing something new and different.   In 2017 my theme was ‘Leading Humans’.  At the time I felt a passion for becoming one (a better version of myself), and for creating them, so they can in turn lead them!  During the year I changed the name of my business to Leading Humans and now have an even clearer focus on where to next for me and my work.   Over the last three years, the specifics I had in mind didn’t necessarily appear precisely as intended, but something else of equal value did. It was the fact that I was on a journey and had a thematic end in mind that counted. The fact that the goal wasn’t so specific also let me off the hook so I didn’t get caught up in ‘failure’.  Your word or theme also serves as decision-making criteria. Does this opportunity or focus align with my theme?   Doing new, great stuff is difficult for the human brain and requires deliberate attention and undesirable effort. So, to make this a little easier, I encourage you to take some time TODAY to start providing some guidance for your RAS this year.   Here is my SEVEN STEP process to get you started…   FIRST…take some time out and head to a café where you can indulge in coffee and cake (or green tea and dark chocolate in my case – there it is – finally the reference to the title), and a notebook or device or small whiteboard depending on your personal process for scribbling and creating!   THEN…just reflect on what you want—big picture 1/3/5 years from now, how last year went, what needs to be different, what will give you the biggest bang for your buck this year, what you don’t want to happen this year, where you want to be in December… Create a vision board of scribbles and key words—WHATEVER takes your reflection fancy. AVOID lists and lengthy prose – use bubbles and key words and pretty pictures. Do this…   SO YOU CAN…land on a series of tangible and intangible goals that excite you! Let your imagination go here…don’t hold back. You need to zoom in to some specifics before you zoom out again to find your theme (note…these goals must EXCITE you).   NOW YOU NEED TO…take a step back and consider the shift or change or ONE THING that is going to make a difference and help you to achieve these goals – what has been the barrier in the past, what has gotten in the way, or what have you failed to do enough of or well enough. Write down a few ideas and order another cupcake or dark chocolate thingy.   AND THEN…forget it all for a while… That’s enough for now. Stop thinking about it and take a few days to let your brain percolate over this. Add to your notes as ideas come. Discuss it over more coffee. Eventually, the WORD or THEME will hit you when you least expect it, and when it does…   PROCLAIM TO THE WORLD…write it, blog about it, draw it, figure out what it looks like everyday, share it with your team and discuss what it means for you and them. Immerse yourself in it, set mindful reminders to make sure it is in front of mind. Do whatever you need to do to clearly instruct your RAS that THIS IS IT FOR 2018…this is our (meaning you and your brain’s) goal, our influencing context, our foundation, our driver. Hardwire it into your RAS – then get on with your year. And finally…   TEST YOURSELF and PIVOT…At the end of a meeting or conversation ask yourself…did I engage with my theme? Set device reminders to make sure you check in and reconnect with it regularly. If things aren’t quite working out, then PIVOT – make a small change in direction or energy to keep you on track. It’s OK to let your theme evolve.   At the end of the day/month etc, diarise a green tea and dark chocolate meeting with yourself and/or your team to reflect on how your theme is going. The BIG TEST is whether the theme is influencing your professional decisions and behaviours. If not, it’s probably not the right theme, or you are not really committed to it – just interested in the idea of it! If this is the case, change it, or get off your butt and commit to it.   My word for 2018 is ‘discipline’.  I’m getting focused on developing the discipline I need to do the things that need to be done to achieve the outcomes I want in both my professional and personal lives.   Good luck. I hope it works for you like it works for me.   Welcome to 2018 – a new year with new opportunities – and I look forward to supporting you on your professional and personal journey!   Go now…
What to do when people just want you to tell them what to do!

What to do when people just want you to tell them what to do!

I am unashamedly passionate about the need for leaders to become master communicators; to learn to have powerful conversations that – one conversation at a time – stimulate quality thinking, hold people accountable to useful effort, create insight and behaviour change, and focus people on ‘useful activity’ rather than ‘interesting distraction’.   Taking a coaching approach to conversations is a powerful skill, but what do you do when the people you are trying to support just want you to tell them what to do?  They don’t want to be asked the hard questions and they actively avoid, and even resent, having to take responsibility and make tough decisions.   Interestingly, the human brain does not like to be told what to do, so why do we find so many employees wanting the quick answer from the boss?   Firstly, consider that essentially, your brain is lazy – and for good reason.  You (and all of us) exist in a socially sophisticated world with a primitive brain and that causes problems. One of the brain’s KPI’s is its capacity to conserve energy and so quality thinking, particularly if not well supported or collaborative in nature, can be effortful.   Secondly, your brain is designed to automate behaviour. Any thinking or behaviour, useful or not, that is repeated is deliberately directed to your ‘automatic brain’ and turned into a habit.  If you are in the ‘habit’ of providing the quick answers to the questions that your people fire at you all day long, and making their decisions for them, then combined with the brains desire to conserve energy, you potentially have team members that will come to expect this and will avoid going outside of their mental comfort zones.  Habits are light on energy, so when you challenge someone to start thinking more deeply for themselves when this is not the norm for them, you are asking their brain to use more energy, which the brain will naturally resist.   The implications of being a boss that ‘tells’ and ‘solves’ are three fold:  
  1. People get lazy and expect that the boss will do the heavy mental lifting, and this results in day-long interruptions to your focus and a drain on your mental energy.
  2. The boss (you) ends up doing everybody’s job for them, and that leaves insufficient time (and brain fuel) to do the heavy mental lifting for your own job (ie, ‘I don’t have time for the strategic thinking I should be doing!).  You end up with everybody’s monkey on your back.
  3. And then when it all turns to pooh, whose fault is it – the boss (you again). ‘John told me to do that!’
  So back to the issue of the brain not wanting to be told what to do.  Essentially, being told is non-consciously processed as ‘you think I’m dumb’.  Often the asking is more of a checking that their thinking is correct. You would have experienced yourself the situation where you asked someone for advice and their well-intentioned response is peppered with ideas and thinking that you already knew or have tried – and we quickly tune out when that happens.   Leaders must strike a balance between supporting the thinking of others …and providing both technical and relational advice that is useful.   Here is an idea on how you might subtly begin to shift the balance of mental energy consumption, get some monkeys off your back, and motivate your people to engage in some great thinking and self-accountability.   In my brain-based coaching skills program – Conversations of Substance – we investigate what I call Accountability Questions. They look something like this:   So what DO you know about this? What thinking or research have you already done OR what have you already tried? What do you THINK you need to do? What specifically is the missing information or decision you need from me?   It is reasonable to insist that, even in situations where there is a knowledge or technical gap, that a discussion around what people already know and have already tried or researched is key to finding the ‘actual gap’ in knowledge.  You will often discover that they already know the answer, but may not have been confident enough to make a decision or to articulate their view – and this should lead to another conversation about why they didn’t feel they could do that.   Asking a few qualifying questions can save everybody a lot of time. Challenge yourself to get into the habit of asking these types of questions before launching into solution mode and you will find you will lighten your own mental load and support others to do better thinking and to learn and grow.  
Be careful what you (don’t) ask for…

Be careful what you (don’t) ask for…

One of my regular exercise spots in Brisbane is high on a hill, overlooking the city, and features an enormous water reservoir.  One lap around is 800 metres, and many families walk there with their children on bikes, and their dogs happily exploring. I love going there.   On Monday, I heard a child ask his mother if people were ‘allowed’ to take the bikes down an off road attached to the main road surrounding the reservoir.  The mother hesitated and then replied, in a supportive and apologetic tone… ‘I don’t think so, mate!’  The disappointed child turned around and continued to cycle on the main road.   My first thought was ‘what road?’ In all the years I’ve been running there, I hadn’t really noticed it – I had stayed focused on my task at hand and not considered any alternative routes.  it took the fresh eyes of a child to bring an unfiltered perspective.   My second thought was…wow, that was an unintentional curbing of that child’s curiosity… along with the assumptions that the parent made allowing for the maintenance of her comfort zone. I’m sure I’ve done this with my kids too.   Perhaps the mother could have asked a couple of questions like…   ‘Is there a sign that says you can or can’t?’ ‘Do you think it looks safe to go down there?’ ‘How steep is the road, and do you think you could handle that slope?’   Or she could have acknowledged the value of the child’s observation.  Something like…   ‘Oh, I’ve never noticed that road before!  Good on you for seeing it.  Let’s walk down there together to check it out and then we can decide if it’s safe.’   Leaders can fall into a similar trap.  They have been doing things one way for so long, (and it’s worked for them so why change) that they can fail to notice and appreciate alternative points of view or ways of achieving a specific outcome. This is normal, protective, human behaviour.  The human brain likes to conserve energy and will resist changing an activity or thinking pattern that has been ‘hardwired’ through repetition and past reward.   So, when others get curious and ask for ‘permission’ to explore or experiment, it can be too easy for the leader to simply redirect back to what the leader knows will be safe.   Is your organisation filled with assumed rules and boundaries that perhaps curb curiosity and creativity.  Do your leaders play it safe, and in the process fuel mediocrity and inhibit innovation? Beside depriving the child of the excitement of exploring the unknown, who knows what he might have discovered – perhaps a whole new bike-riding area?  It’s the same for leaders who are pressed to deliver and therefore choose to play it safe.   To shift this, leaders must develop a different mindset, a new set of conversational habits, and a level of self-leadership that embraces natural curiosity, humility and vulnerability, and create an environment where people have open permission to think, to be curious, to challenge the status quo and to bring new perspectives to old challenges.   Three of the most powerful words in any leader’s vocabulary should be – ’what if we…’ and all people in the organisation should be encouraged to use them.  An experimental mindset is critical if organisations are to thrive in this VUCA* world.  Imagine if scientists only ran experiments where the outcome was guaranteed? Discovery, innovation and learning would be sadly missing.   Here are three simple things you can do that will make a big difference…  
  1. Any time someone asks you ‘Can I … ‘ or ‘Should I …’ you should respond with ‘what do you think?’
  2. Notice when the answers are coming too quickly from you. That could mean that others are relying on your expertise to much to solve their problems. Even as a leader you don’t need to be doing everybody’s thinking for them. Encourage others to think for themselves a bit more and build their own expertise.
  3. Ask more questions, and then shut up and let people think. The average elapsed time between when we ask a question, then answer it is 7 seconds.
These small changes will help you to get some of the monkeys off your back, encourage a higher quality of thinking, and shift accountability…leaving more time and brain space for you.       *VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous  
Experience is the New Engagement

Experience is the New Engagement

I’m a late starter.   I began drinking coffee at age 50, mainly because my experience to date had been delivering countless cups of home-brewed Nescafé and toasted sandwiches over many years to my parents on the front porch and, quite frankly, it didn’t look all that appealing.   In recent years I had become known for drinking Green Tea (with dark chocolate on the side – see my GREEN TEA AND DARK CHOCOLATE blog). I began drinking Green Tea because the experience of sitting with friends in a coffee shop and drinking water was no longer doing it for me, and because my naturopath told me it was full of anti-oxidants and apparently that’s good.   I was privileged to have my first coffee delivered to me in the Di Bella Boardroom, by my colleague, friend and great coach, Gian Di Bella. It blew my head off so I’ve toned my preferred brew down.  I now order a ‘Michelleuccino’ – skinny cappuccino in a mug, extra chocolate on top. This special combination does a couple of things: satisfies my chocolate addiction; controls the calories (yes it does!); tells me something about the person/establishment serving me – do they listen and are they flexible and accommodating; and it often enhances the experience for me – I get my coffee delivered with a smile and a comment like ‘skinny cap for the lady with EXTRA CHOC on top!’   I love it. I feel special. I go back for more.   Great experience seems to be sadly lacking. Having said that, a great experience not only stays with me, I talk about it, pay it forward, and develop loyalties through it. All things being equal (or not) ie, the quality of the coffee, I will frequent the coffee shop with the better experience.   We buy, and buy-in to great experience and that includes the experience that organisations provide their clients, and for you as a leader, it must also include the people who provide the experience for the client, your people.   We’ve spent decades mastering the collection and analysis of data and information. That’s great but it’s no longer enough.   The challenges of employee engagement are distraction, elevated expectations, personal goals and desires, and wanting to feel part of something of value and that they respect.  Particularly for the younger generations, it is not uncommon for them to leave your employ ‘because I didn’t like working there’. They seek alignment with values and great experiences.   So…   How do your colleagues/team experience you?   Do you make them feel valued and respected? Do you give them dedicated time, and more importantly during that time are you totally present and focusing 100% on them?   What is the experience of a conversation with you?   Are you a teller? Is your opinion and expertise the most valuable input to the discussion, or do you ask great questions to help them think things through and experience the joy of resolving issues on their own?  Perhaps you have to admit that you like the sound of your own voice and you’re addicted to being right?*   What are meetings with you like?   Are they productive or stagnant wastes of time? Do you provide the agenda, or do you check in on the needs of each individual and dig to make sure that what they say is really what they need? Do they truly feel heard and gain value from attending – or is it just you? Are they giving lip service to your perceived needs because you are the boss?   How do you experience others?   Do you seek to elevate them, to dig deep to find and facilitate their ‘awesome’?  Do you accept them for the unique combination of strengths and weaknesses that they are, and work to help them be successful? Are you open to being challenged or disagreed with, even if they are not elegant in that endeavour?   And most importantly…how do you know the answers to these questions?  Have you ever asked?   What is your next question?   (*’Addicted to Being Right’ – wonderful words from Judith Glaser – Author of Conversational Intelligence)