Last time, I said that working relationships will be smoother if you stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting. Easier said than done. Have you ever wanted to react angrily at work to something someone said or did? Have you given in to that temptation? How did it work out if you did?
What happens without empathy?
My natural reaction can be a little hot headed in some situations. I remember losing my temper with an employee when I was chair of trustees for a small charity. She provoked me, but that’s not really a legitimate reason. It was in front of other staff too, which made it an even worse mistake. If I’d tried harder to see things from her perspective – loss of funding meant the future of the charity, and with it her job, were at risk, she’d worked there for about 20 years, who was I to come in and start telling her what to do, what did I know? – maybe we wouldn’t have been in a position where she continually provoked me. And maybe, even if she had, I’d have found it easier to remain calm.
Going back even further, I had a manager who bullied me for a long time. I used to fantasise about standing in the doorway of her office gunning her down with a machine gun. Someone said that was too fast an end to her, but for me it captured the explosive nature of my anger. And I’m not a violent person. This work situation took away my confidence for a long time, and I harboured ill feelings towards her for a long time too. But as I’ve grown, learned more about what makes us happy, what makes us confident and powerful, I eventually started to see things from her point of view. She was a manager of an office of 50 staff, responsible for reaching financial targets for law enforcement. She was probably under pressure herself from senior management to achieve those targets. Who knows what stress she was feeling, but I never considered this back then.
A rebellious team leader, arguing with her over changes, backing the team against her, she reacted inappropriately by using intimidating tactics to get me to fall into line. They didn’t work, resulting in a breakdown of our working relationship. If I’d stopped to consider what she needed to achieve in running the office, shown some empathy for the pressures she was under, perhaps we’d have been an awesome team. I think she had some things to learn about managing people, but I can’t escape responsibility for this situation.
I first came across empathy as an important skill in the workplace in Daniel Goleman’s article for the Harvard Business Review. Originally published in 1996, it features in their 10 must reads published in 2011. Goleman’s article is aimed at leaders, but I believe we can all benefit from nurturing this critical life skill.
Back when he first wrote this, Goleman pointed out that empathy wasn’t seen as businesslike. Now however, we see articles in Inc - Why Empathy Is the Most Important Skill You'll Ever Need to Succeed and Forbes - Why Empathy Matters In The Workplace. We get whole books devoted to helping us improve our emotional intelligence (EQ).
One way is to use a test, such as that in Bradberry and Greaves’ book, reference below. Another is to ask people you trust to be honest with you. If your working relationships are such that you cannot ask this question of anyone at work, or you believe that your team won’t feel safe enough to tell you, then you have a significant amount of learning to do. But even if you do have trusted advisers, be prepared for surprises. It can be difficult to know how we’re perceived by others unless we make the effort to find out, and it can be difficult to hear the answers.
And a third option – look inside yourself. Do you feel you have empathy? Do you feel you could improve? On the whole, people would describe me as empathetic, but there are some situations where I don’t put myself effectively in the other person’s shoes. I described a couple above, but they are ancient history now. Last week at the improv course, I was acting as a mother pleading with her child to come home. I missed a couple of things, and if that had been a real conversation, could have had serious implications. (I know it’s only pretend, but empathy and listening skills are central to good improv, as I said here.) I’m also pretty sure my husband would say I don’t see things from his point of view often enough.
So it’s situational. But good self awareness (one of the other components of EQ) will ensure that you know where your strengths and weaknesses are, and where you want to improve.
Like all of the components of emotional intelligence, we can learn empathy, but it takes commitment and reflective practice. Goleman himself says the process is not easy. The rewards, however, are worth the effort. Not just better working relationships, but less stress and better personal relationships too. So what can you do? Practice, is the short answer.
Develop your listening skills
The pretend situation I mentioned above, where I was pleading with a child to come home – humour me while I use that as an example. The situation was that my daughter (played by a thirty-ish guy from Barbados) had run away from home because Daddy didn’t love her because he wanted her to be a boy. I’m not sure what age she was meant to be, but in my head, around five years old. I totally missed the point about Daddy wanting her to be a boy, and didn’t address this in my responses. How tragic would this be if a parent missed such a comment from their daughter, whatever age she was? While we were playing this for laughs I’m sure this will have happened in reality, and was a stark reminder to me about picking up on things, even if they’re said in passing. Often people reveal their true feelings subtly, or inadvertently. (I’m not suggesting my improv colleague was on that occasion though )
Take some time out to consider an interaction that didn’t go how you wanted it to go. Think about what that felt like for the other person. Do you think they felt heard? Years ago, when I was in the civil service, and much was done in a bureaucratic way, I often said the managers I respected were those who let me put my point of view. They didn’t have to accept it – if they acknowledged my point, but said they wanted something done differently regardless of my points, I would accept that – they were the boss, and I was happy to accept that sometimes they would make a decision I didn’t agree with. And this was before I understood, or had even heard of, emotional intelligence. The managers I rebelled against were the ones I felt didn’t listen. It’s important to acknowledge another viewpoint, even if you have reasons for not changing your stance. If you can explain those reasons, so much the better. For empathy to be effective, the other party has to feel your empathy. It’s no good if you didn’t communicate it effectively.
Watch for hidden cues
Sometimes people say one thing, but don’t really feel it. Learn to watch for incongruence, saying yes and shaking the head no, for example. It may not be in the gestures or facial expressions, it may be in the tone of voice. Agreeing to something in a tone of voice that’s not very convincing, shows no enthusiasm. Pick up on these – ask what’s holding them back, what misgivings do they have? Be prepared though, for people still not to give you the full information. Sometimes they might not be fully aware themselves what the problem is, and sometimes they may not be ready to share it, or want to share it with you. It’s all a work in progress though, as you develop your skill in communicating your empathy, others will grow to trust you more and be more ready to be honest with you.
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In her book ‘How to have a great day at work’ Caroline Webb suggests that a technique of improvisational comedy is a good way to give brain friendly feedback. ‘Yes, and….’ instead of ‘Yes, but…’ fosters collaboration and helps bring out the best in others.
Ever since I read this, I’ve been intrigued to learn more about improv. Facebook must have known this, because they kept telling me about a local course, starting soon. I signed up.
I mean, I love my books but some things you can’t learn from a book, you’ve got to get out in the real world, meet real new people and do new things. I thought this would be fun. A little bit out of my comfort zone – I once did a short stand up comedy course, ending with a showcase performance. That was a bit scary, but I rehearsed and knew my routine. Improv – well, that’s a whole different ball game, but I thought it would be fun, so what the hell?
It is not what I expected. I don’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. On our second meeting, we were asked to stare into someone’s eyes for two minutes and imagine their life. I knew next to nothing about these people. One guy (they are mostly guys, only one other woman, although the trainer is a young woman) the only thing I know about him is that he’d just been accepted onto a wimp to warrior MMA training programme. I don’t know what that is, but it sounds serious. Another guy, the only thing I knew about him is that he’s autistic and didn’t like the light in the room we were in. And the third guy, I know his name, but that’s about it. But then I eased into it a bit and started making stuff up. Which I think is what we were meant to do.
We also created a soundscape. For those of you who don’t know what that is – and again, I didn’t – it involves sitting in an outward facing circle, in the dark, with our eyes closed, making noises. Mostly copying other people’s noises, but occasionally dropping in a new one. Now, ask me to stand up in front of an audience to speak and I’m good to go. But you want me to sit in the dark, with my eyes closed, amongst strangers, and make funny noises? Seriously? Do I have to?
We also learned the ‘Yes, and…’ technique. Whatever someone said, you had to accept it and build on it. I got involved in drug smuggling in Colombia and found I had an alcohol problem on holiday in the Caribbean. I think there were drugs there too. (We’re new, not sure we had the right idea.)
You might be wondering why I’m telling you all this. Well, even though I’d started out with the knowledge that improv could foster collaboration at work and bring out the best in others I was nevertheless surprised at the life lessons in the first two classes. Here’s a few of the things I learned.
You don’t leave it to someone else, be proactive, participate and remember it’s always your turn. How useful is this at work? Ever work in one of those places (public sector is good at this) where people take the attitude ‘I’m not doing that, it’s not my job’? How much better would it be if everyone had everyone’s back, and just jumped in and did what’s necessary?
They may come out with something completely random or out of character – I mean, do you think I’d actually get involved in drug smuggling? But it’s been said, so work with it, and make the other person look good.
Imagine if everyone at your workplace used this principle, that they always had to make everyone else look good? There wouldn’t be problems of people taking credit for others’ ideas, because everyone would be focusing on making their managers, their team members and their colleagues look good. The level of collaboration would sky rocket, and so would productivity.
I discovered I have a problem letting things go. I’ve never considered myself a control freak. I’m usually the one suggesting other people let it go. Driving for example, and some idiot cuts in front, others get all worked up, honking and swearing at the other driver. I’m the one saying you’re only winding yourself up, let it go.
But when we start to take turns adding bits to a story, I was really frustrated if someone didn’t say what I thought they should. I did not like giving up the control to others or letting go of the outcome.
Autonomy at work is a key driver of motivation, so if you’re a manager finding it difficult to give up control, you’re stifling your team. Like me, you’re going to have to learn to let it go.
I found the exercises helped to develop empathy. Even though I was making it up, I felt empathy for the people whose eyes I sat staring into. And it also made me want to know more about them. It was good to develop some curiosity about someone else, especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t naturally consider things from someone else’s perspective. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes at work would get rid of much conflict.
It was a difficult exercise to do, I totally get that this is a bit full on for work, and not everyone would be comfortable throwing themselves into this. But (ah damn, I said ‘but’!) if you can at least stop and consider someone else’s position before reacting, then working relationships will be smoother.
Are you a good listener? An active listener? Too often, we’re not fully listening to what someone else is saying, we’re waiting for our turn to speak.
Feeling heard is a powerful motivator. Disempowered people often feel that their concerns aren’t being heard, and at work this can lead to resentment, which in turn leads to low motivation, and then low productivity. Even just on a practical level, if you’re not listening to problems that others at work are experiencing, you’re also shutting off possible solutions
I’m not suggesting all workplaces introduce courses in improvisational comedy – though that could be fun – but it doesn’t hurt to borrow techniques that can improve your day at work.
What do you think? Is there a particular behaviour you could improve to make things better at work?
I’m going to hazard a guess that you’ve seen managers who don't know how to manager, can’t motivate their staff. Maybe even worked for one. Hopefully haven’t been one, but sometimes, you know, that happens too - we can all learn to be better. Often, this is because of poor workplace culture – not always, there are cases of one off ineffective managers in good organisations, but in the main, the poor managers are a result of poor organisations in my opinion.
What if you’re unfortunate enough to find yourself working in one of the places with some of these managers? How do you deal with that? Can you change the culture by yourself, or does the culture come from the top? As a comment in a previous post asked, ‘Is this really the responsibility of the individual if they are a lone voice? … Is it the responsibility of the management, organisation or team to change the culture?’
As I’ve argued before, if you are a lone voice with no power or authority within a toxic work environment, then no, realistically, you’re not going to make a significant difference. Does this mean you shouldn’t try? If you’re stuck with the job, even for the time being, surely you want to make some effort to improve things?
I recently re-read Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and one concept that was a bit of lightbulb moment for me was reading about circle of concern vs circle of influence. I realised I’d been getting all bent out of shape over things I couldn’t impact. Brexit, Donald Trump, austerity…my circles of concern. When it would be much more beneficial and impactful if I focussed on my circles of influence – where I could make a difference.
Let’s apply this to the toxic workplace. Can you change government policy and get them to make the right investment in your public sector service, so that it can properly serve the people it claims to serve? No. (Ok, my politics might be showing a bit here)
Can you change the strategic plan your managers and leaders are working towards? Mmm, maybe, a little, but unlikely. Depends what stage it’s at.
Can you change the targets your manager wants you to work towards? Again, maybe. Put together a good argument for why the targets are unrealistic, and a proposal for revised targets. If your manager has a little wiggle room, then you may be able to get them agreed. If the culture is very poor, maybe even that wouldn’t be successful. But give it a go – you won’t know unless you try.
Can you change your manager’s behaviour towards you? Not directly, you can’t make them change.
Can you change your behaviour towards your manager? Ah, there we have it. You can change your behaviour. You can change your response to your manager’s behaviour, and that in itself might result in a change of your manager’s behaviour.
Ditto your colleagues. You can’t make them change, but you can change your behaviour towards them, and their behaviour back might just change too.
Again, none of this is simple. If it was just as simple as deciding to change, and then doing it, we all would. But we’re creatures of habit, and changing habits is really hard. I mean, really, really hard. So let’s start with some simple things, and here’s an idea you can try out.
Give a cheerful greeting. Say a cheery good morning to everyone you meet as you arrive at work. If no-one does this at your workplace, people will be surprised at first. But persist. They’ll start to reply, and slowly it will alter the atmosphere slightly. When someone asks how are you (or that Brummie greeting of ‘alright?’, where you’re just meant to say ‘alright’ back) answer ‘Fantastic thanks!’ This is really fun to do, especially if your customary answer is ‘not too bad thanks’. People will want to know why you’re feeling fantastic, you’ll develop new connections with people you’ve not really spoken to before, and it will alter your own mood – it’s tricky to feel miserable or say ‘Fantastic!’ in a glum voice. Starting in these small ways will develop into a changed way you greet people generally, and you will make a difference.
The more you change your behaviour and responses to others, the more you will find your circle of influence grows.
Try this for a week, and let me know in the comments section how you get on. What difference has it made?
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A quick Google search on what do employees complain about shows that communication crops up in most top 10s. An Inc article on how to make sure your employees never complain about you as a boss puts clearly communicating performance expectations at number 1. Another top 10 puts communication problems above not paid enough, job insecurity and a bad boss. A You Gov poll said that 94% of managers believe they are good listeners; only 65% of their staff agreed.
I remember when I worked at a largish charity a few years ago, we did a quality audit, using the EFQM model, and one of the key areas where we fell short was on communication. My particular grievance was that I felt left out of too many conversations, I didn’t know everything that was going on. While this might well be a personality fault – perhaps I’m too nosey – but I felt that as a fundraiser, I needed to have a good understanding of what was going on across the organisation. I hated finding out that someone else was doing a funding bid and I didn’t know it was going on, or needed funding urgently for a project, but then I couldn’t get the information I needed to apply for appropriate funding.
At the same time, we had lots of meetings. I attended lots of meetings, even without the ones I complained about not being involved in. And then I hated sitting there listening to people talking at length about the problems they were having, or some meeting they’d had and had to give us a blow by blow account of who said what to whom. Just give me the headlines, dammit!
Of course, with hindsight, I can see that the organisation had good intent, but just needed to get smarter about how it shared information. Peter Drucker, in his seminal book Managing Oneself, describes people as readers or listeners. Some people like to read for information, others like to be told it, to get an oral report. I realise now that, whilst I love to talk, and developing my skills as a listener, I get too bored if I have to listen too long to something, especially if I’m not involved. Conversation – I love a good conversation, but meetings aren’t about conversation. Give me a written report that contains the information I need, please. Meetings should have a specific agenda, good discipline about sticking to it, but most of all be necessary to meet a defined purpose. There are other, more effective, ways to share information
Another complaint often heard about communication at work is too many emails. Some organisations have a tendency to send long emails, cc ing in anyone they think needs to be kept informed. One charity worker I spoke to said the bane of her life was long emails, where she had to spend ages reading through to check if there was anything she needed to know or needed to do, buried somewhere in the missive. Often there wasn’t. But sometimes there was, so she still had to read them. And another manager complained that people sent him an email to ask a question, rather than get up, walk to another desk, ask him the question, sort it out straight away. On the other hand, if you have a culture of always open, you’ll be constantly interrupted, so this can have its drawbacks too.
One of the most crucial, and underrated, communication skills is listening. 94% of managers believe they are good listeners. But only 65% of staff say their managers are good listeners. So it sounds as though a significant proportion of managers are deluding themselves. The You Gov poll asked what is the biggest mistake leaders make when working with others? 41% said inappropriate communication or poor listening. When asked to choose the top five from a list of potential missteps by leaders, 81% chose failing to listen or involve others.
Why is it important? If we go back to my experience of feeling left out, as well as paradoxically hating to waste time in meetings, this taps into some fundamental feelings about work. My sense of belonging, how engaged was I with the purpose of the organisation and my role in it, was I clear on what was expected of me? Was my contribution valued? With hindsight, I accept that it was, this organisation had so much good intent, but there were some things it could have done better. As well as communication, several staff complained that they didn’t feel appreciated. If they had communicated this better, motivation and morale would have been way higher.
It’s not easy, but the rewards are worth it. Sometimes, your staff won’t know what they need, like me simultaneously complaining about not being involved in meetings, and going to meetings that are a waste of time. Back then, if someone had taken the time to work out what my actual complaint was, and consider my preferred style of communication, the problem could have been resolved. However, throw in that other team members will have differing needs, and you see how complex this can get.
Here are five techniques that work, one of them, or a combination, may be right for you.
Whether you can improve your communication with a simple fix will depend on what your workplace culture is like at present. If you have generally good leaders and managers who are willing to work on their skills, then a few changes can make all the difference. However, if there are wider problems and the other Pam Cast principles are not an integral part of your culture, then the techniques above will be like putting a sticking plaster over a wound that needs stitches. If you’re afraid this is you, take the questionnaire now and see what your strengths and weaknesses are.[WPMKTENGINECTA id=”20c4f399329e401380″ align=”center” hastime=”false”]
 Murray, K 2017 People with purpose, Kogan Page, London p 186
I was reading something recently about workplaces, and working relationships, and was intrigued by this finding. Apparently, some research was done about how many mistakes were made in a hospital, comparing places where the people were comfortable, got along in the team, and all worked well together, with other places where there were not good working relationships.
The researchers were surprised to find that more mistakes were made in the hospitals where everyone got on well, not the ones with poor working relationships. This wasn’t what they expected to see.
Being good researchers, they investigated further to see why this might be.
I don’t know if you can see the answer coming, but the results weren’t so counterintuitive after all. It’s not that the good workplaces made more mistakes. It’s that they owned up to them. And, more importantly, learned from them.
Those places where people didn’t work well together, no-one wanted to own up to the mistakes. That’s quite frightening in a hospital don’t you think? It means possibly no-one is acting to put them right, and if the mistakes are critical, or fatal – well, instead of getting help, the busy, stressed, incompetent, whatever adjective applies, worker, was probably trying to put it right by themselves. Or not, if they were indeed incompetent. Now, I’m not suggesting all healthcare workers who make mistakes like this are incompetent, most won’t be, but there’s bound to be some. But whatever the reason for the mistake, not owning up to it is costing people’s health and even lives. The lack of shared learning – how do we ensure this doesn’t happen again, is compounding the problem.
We all know the NHS is under extreme pressure, and allowing these kinds of workplace cultures to persist in such a crucial sector is madness in my opinion.
But there are lessons for us whatever our sector. Do we want people who take responsibility, own up to mistakes, work to rectify and learn for the future? Or are we happy to continue with teams who don’t get along, are afraid to step up and take responsibility, develop and grow?
How about your own workplace? Can people be honest and open about errors, or do they cover them up because of an environment of fear? What impact does that have on your organisation's effectiveness? Start the discussion by leaving a comment below.
 Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I read this to cite the source. A check of my recent reading material hasn’t enabled me to find it – but if I do, I’ll come back and cite.