a post on decisions and empathy in trying times
Last week, I talked about decisions and decision making. A natural follow up is to discuss the results of decisions - and to acknowledge that sometimes decisions have a big impact on people. If you’ve worked with me for any amount of time, you will have heard me share a quote from Leadership On the Line (Heifetz et al)
“Leadership is disappointing people at a level they can absorb.”
To me, this line is a little funny in how true it is, and lines like this stick with me. Similarly, in Read This Before Our Next Meeting, Al Pittampalli says,
“What happens if I make a decision not everyone agrees with? Congratulations, you’re a leader”
As a leader, you may think that trying to make everyone happy all the time is your goal. It’s not. In fact, this approach leads to misery. The idea with the Pittampalli quote is that trying to make decisions by consensus is nearly impossible, and takes forever. Instead, take the data and input you have from the people who have the most context and input, discuss and debate as needed, and then align on a decision. The Disagree and Commit concept from Scott McNealy builds on this and is about saving time in decision making by encouraging debate and disagreement on decisions, but in the end committing to a decision, even if not everyone agrees (and they can safely do so, because their voice and opinion were heard and acknowledged).
Aftermath and Empathy
As leaders, we sometimes have to make really difficult decisions, or decisions we don’t even want to make - and these decisions can have a profound impact on the people we work with, and the teams we lead. Leadership doesn’t stop, of course, at the decision. When we make difficult decisions with wide-reaching impact, it is our duty as leaders to help our teams deal with the results and implications of our decisions.
This is were we do our best to lead with empathy, and try to rebuild the trust we may have lost. Let’s say, for example, that you make a decision that pisses off half of your organization (that may go beyond the Heifetz, “level they can absorb”). The best - or maybe only thing you can do here is acknowledge how those folks feel. Put yourself in their shoes and find their feelings. I recently learned the difference between cognitive and social empathy (taking someone else’s perspective (cognitive) vs. sharing an emotional experience (social). While both forms of empathy could be applicable, I think cognitive empathy applies more often when dealing with repercussions of hard decisions. Listen to what people say and how they say it. Acknowledge what you hear and understand what people are feeling. It’s ok to be mad, angry, frustrated, or sad. Sometimes, people just need to vent - and you should let them, even if they’re venting at you.
Another of my favorite books (I love business fables) is Leadership and Self-Deception. It’s an easy (and excellent) read that drives home the point that sometimes we treat people as objects (or cogs in a machine) instead of as people because of self-betrayal or self-deception - and that sometimes we’re in a “box” where we resist others instead of treating them as we should. When you’re “in the box” people follow you through force or threat of force - if they follow you at all. When you’re out of the box, people follow you because you care, inspire, and build trust. I worked in an organization at Microsoft where we hired a leader who felt he deserved praise and respect simply because he was the leader of the group. He was “in the box”. I left the group shortly after he took over, and I expect he’s still “in the box”. I think we’ve all known people like this, and I think if you’re reading this, you probably don’t want to be - or work for people like this.
Once again, I’ve rambled.
The point I’m attempting to make is that when we make difficult decisions that have a big impact on the people we work with, it's important to acknowledge the disappointment and frustration we may create. And then we need to lead with empathy to try and rebuild the trust we may have lost. It's essential to remember that leading with empathy is not just about making everyone happy all the time, but about always striving to create a culture of understanding, respect and mutual trust in the organization.
In the end, all we can do is try, learn, and then try again - and hope that every day we get a little better.