Caring Leaders Attract More Talent and Inspire Greater Engagement
Leaders Must Care
Jennifer had been an executive in a global telecom company for six months when she hired me for coaching. In our first meeting, she sounded anxious as she explained that her team was not performing well. She was under a great deal of pressure to turn the situation around quickly, or her job would be in jeopardy.
When I asked what she thought the reasons for the performance issues were, she complained that the people on her team weren’t putting enough effort into their work. I probed for reasons for their lack of engagement, and she declared, “They are all lazy!”
Following up on this harsh assessment, I learned that during the first six months, she had focused on results without showing any interest or concern for the needs of the people she depended on to produce those results. She’d made little effort to get to know them at a human level. Jennifer’s belief was that because they were paid, they should be motivated to give their best. I have observed that to be able to do this, however, they require being treated as human beings with needs, values and emotions. Because Jennifer had regarded her team as a means to an end, they hadn’t put in the extra effort to create the turnaround she was hired to produce.
The leader who doesn’t appear to care about the people she is leading is not trusted by them, and if a leader is not trusted, people don’t follow her. That is why it is not a surprise that caring organisations have greater engagement of their employees, perform better than their competitors and attract more talent than those that don’t have a caring culture. In a caring culture, people show a genuine concern for and interest in the well-being of others, and leaders play an essential role modelling those behaviours. By not caring about her employees, Jennifer had sabotaged her chances for success. The good news is caring can be learned, but how?
Empathy – The Gate to Caring
A leader, like any human being of mature age in healthy circumstances, already has the ability to care about others. The difference in our capacity for this relates to who it is that we care about. Naturally, our ability to care about others is stronger for those we are close to or who we identify with. Jennifer had labelled the members of her new team “lazy,” putting them in a group of people different from how she sees herself. What does this mean about a leader’s ability to learn caring for her stakeholders across differences?
An eye-opening example for me about learning to care about people who we perceive different from us was Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the 2015 European refugee crisis. At the peak of the crisis in a TV town hall meeting, Merkel very rationally explained why Germany could not possibly accept every single refugee into the country. She had barely finished her argument when a young girl from Syria in the audience started sobbing. As the chancellor listened, the girl shared how much fear and anxiety she and her family were experiencing every day about the possibility of being sent back to her war-torn country. Merkel, visibly moved, spontaneously walked over to comfort the girl. The chancellor, who at one moment had been arguing for restrictive immigration policies in an emotionally detached way, visibly showed emotional empathy for the girl. After that, as the refugee crisis continued to escalate, Merkel, despite strong opposition, made the surprising decision to welcome more than a million refugees into the country.
Caring about someone can be prompted through the sort of emotional empathy Merkel experienced, which is the ability to be in resonance with another person’s feelings. Research confirms a lack of empathy, especially emotional empathy, toward people who we don’t feel close to or who we perceive as different from us. As a leader, connecting with and getting to know your key stakeholders will enable you to feel emotional empathy and prompt caring.
Note that emotional empathy is different from cognitive empathy, which is recognising or knowing how another person feels, what they need or how they think. It may prompt you to care as a learned response, but it does not necessarily lead to caring. However, if you are in resonance with the emotions of someone else, provided that the person is not a psychopath, it prompts an experience of caring about the other, like it happened to Angela Merkel.
This shows that a leader can expand her circle of care through emotional empathy. I suggest that this is true for a team leader like Jennifer, the CEO of a large company, as well as for any other leader. No matter where a person is in the hierarchy of an organization or in society, emotional empathy provides a gateway to caring.
Caring and its driver, emotional empathy, are so fundamental to leadership that they build the foundation for the other leadership competencies of the ASPIRE Leadership Model.