The "Softest" Software

For decades, putting the word empathy in the same sentence as leadership would evoke derision and scorn. The take-no-prisoners, bullying approach evidenced by Steven Job, Steve Ballmer, Travis Kalanick (Uber) and epitomized by Donald Trump seems to capture attention media attention.

But the tide is turning. Consider Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella who has used empathy and collaboration to turn a fading organization into a $250 billion success. In a published interview with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, his ardent practice of compassionate leadership brought potential employees exclaiming how they’d want to work for him.

To attract and retain talent, develop teamwork, and succeed as a resilient organization, these soft skills are often the hardest to develop.  It’s one thing to understand marketing strategy, balance sheets, and competitive analysis, but it is quite something else to purposely behave in a way that is more about inspiration and collaboration rather than command and control.

As noted by Dr. Sherry Turkle in her book, Reclaiming Conversation, “Empathy is uniquely human. It cannot be mastered without face-to-face conversations.”

That’s the rub.  Improving empathy requires an investment—an investment of time to actually know people as individuals and to encourage face-to-face communication. The good news is that the actual cost of improving empathy is small, and the potential payout huge.  Consider the “new” Microsoft.

But it’s not enough to come face-to-face (even if over a teleconference line). To develop as an empathetic leader, here are six behaviors to begin practicing:

  • Listen more than speak.  Specifically, refrain from judgment in order to understand the other person. Ask reflective questions to discover if what you “think” you hear is accurate.
  • Seek authentic ways to positively acknowledge others. More often than not, we have been taught to lead by correcting faults rather than focusing on what is positive.
  • Consider Nadella’s emphasis on collaboration by creating a “learn-it-all” culture versus a know-it-all one. A forward moving organization requires that ideas and input from all quadrants of the business and not just the C-Suite.
  • Reveal your humanity. Human beings make mistakes and experience setbacks. When a leader reveals such personal information, she becomes both real and accessible. Course corrections in business and life are as essential as the standard course corrections used in flying a plane.
  • Look to unleash talent within the organization and not just from outside. Encourage all employees and managers to explore what interests are untapped. Have the conversations that ask “what will keep you excited and engaged in this enterprise?”
  • Celebrate and come together.  There’s a huge difference between the morale of a company in which managers were told NOT to eat lunch with subordinates and the one that said, “break bread together”.

Six simple behaviors. Easy to write and harder to do. Consider an internal “nudge” or a coach to remind you and work on these skills. You want your “mindware” working with software, the softest of software: PEOPLE.