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Empathy is generally described as the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s having the the capacity to recognise and understand the emotions of another person and then act accordingly. Leading human organisations, where feelings and emotions impact on views, thoughts and attitudes, we are faced with multiple perspectives and using this soft skill can have tangible results. When we take time to reflect on the perspective of others we cast away assumptions and avoid jumping to conclusions providing a clarity to our decision making. For this reason being able to empathise could potentially be one of the most important leadership skills of the 21st Century.
As an empathetic leader, you are aware of the feelings of others and are able to appreciate what another person is going through. This does not mean that you necessarily agree with them. There are times when those we lead feel a range of emotions as a result of a looming deadline, the introduction of a new initiative or a decision that has been made. We all feel pressure at various stages of our careers and question the expectations placed upon us. Empathy though, is not about lowering expectations it is about knowing when to reinforce them. There are times when a compassionate ear is all that is needed, but there may also be times when it is coupled with a supportive scaffold to assist with the task at hand. When you use empathy to identify why someone is behaving the way they are the person feels valued and heard and therefore, is better positioned to accept responsibility for their actions, understand the decision being made or the expectations being placed upon them.
Empathetic leaders are non-judgemental. The nature of our positions often find us time poor, looking to expedite decisions and conversations so we can complete our busy schedules. This presents us with a challenge where it can be habitual to listen to a colleague whilst running a parallel internal dialogue making judgements about the nature of their feelings, perceptions or reactions in order to efficiently identify a solution. Truly empathetic leaders are free of this, they know that if you are running a diagnostic internal process you’ve already cast judgement, meaning you can’t accurately perceive another’s emotional state. I’ve always been of the view that we feel the way we feel, no-one can tell us how or why we should feel a particular way, it’s the way we deal with it that makes the difference. An empathetic leader is able to reserve judgement, listen and then meet people where they are. A successful leader will then use this as the platform to build on for future success.
In times of heightened emotion people’s ability to make rational decisions can be significantly impaired. When meeting with a person whose emotions are overflowing it’s time to be a good listener. As leaders we are often good problem solvers, listening to our colleagues to find solutions or alternative pathways is important. As an empathetic leader we must put our complete focus on the person standing in front of us showing that we are fully present. This can be very difficult at times and can require a great deal of concentration, especially with a full agenda and a queue building at the door. Being a good listener and showing we are present in the conversation allows a better chance to have our colleagues open up and share the underlying reason behind the emotion. If we shift our attention too quickly and try to solve the issue we run the risk of stemming the flow. We must finely tune our understanding of body language and speech patterns to know the right time to intervene. The best way to do this is to remain open during conversations and place your complete focus on the person in front of you.
Empathetic leaders display enormous amounts of self-control. When dealing with a highly emotional person who may be expressing their concerns in a way that can be confronting, empathy can be the first thing that gets discarded. When hurtful comments get made we often feel the need to defend and can become impatient. The empathetic leader is able to park that rising emotion before speaking. You can feel the emotion rising in your body, some call it the red mist, the true leader will recognise it and allow time for a moment of reflection before speaking. It can also be useful to take a break in the conversation to clear enough space to communicate effectively. By creating space we provide time to reflect and see the issue through another’s perspective allowing us an opportunity to make sense of the emotion behind the response. You will never be able to be reactive and empathetic at the same time, displaying empathy for others means we must utilise self-control before we speak.
So much of our self is tied up in what we do. When we meet people at a social gatherings we introduce ourselves and follow up with I am a (insert Occupation). We don’t say I am a husband, a father, a brother, we say I am a (insert Occupation) what do you do? We are so heavily invested in our chosen career paths that it can be very easy to become emotionally charged when we don’t understand or agree with a decision or when we feel that it has a negative impact on our wellbeing. As leaders we must understand that the bottom line is our success comes through our people. Our people are the most powerful indicators of our ability to meet our organisations goals. People have emotions and feelings, they go through moods and at times attitudes vary. They have lives outside of the work place that impact on their ability to function at their optimum. Being aware of this, remaining open to understand the feelings and emotions of others is critical in our human centric environment.
Whether you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes or place the shoe on the other foot, remember everyone has a story that has led them to this point. Your job is to tune in to what the person standing in front of you is going through and respond in a way that shows that you acknowledge their feelings and understand the issue from their perspective. I’m not suggesting that you should always agree and I would never expect you to lower your standards. Just know that empathy is the fuel that powers effective relationships. It shows that we support our people and when we do that anything is possible.
Always the bridesmaid. You know that feeling like it’s never going to happen for you. The roller coaster of emotions that is merit selection. You left the interview feeling confident, all your referees were strong, it’s only a matter of time, you’ve got this one, you can feel the positive energy. Then you get the call, you can hear it in the voice straight away, that familiar tone that always seems to deliver bad news. It was a high quality field they say, you did exceptionally well they tell you. It’s a process that is both mentally and physically draining and at times makes you question whether you can go through it again. This is the point when your courage, grit and sheer tenacity have to kick in. You must push through and not let that downward spiral of emotion turn into a force that derails your ambition.
It can be extremely frustrating getting so close on so many occasions. The power of not being the chosen candidate can leave you feeling incredibly flat physically and emotionally. Scientists from the University from Michigan conducted a study using MRI images that demonstrated the physical and emotional power of rejection. Their study was able to make direct comparison between rejection and physical pain. They concluded that not only were both rejection and physical pain distressing but that they actually share a common neurological response. They were able to provide evidence that the region of the brain that became active in response to physical pain also became active when exposed to rejection. This supports the thoughts of unsuccessful candidates who often express that not getting that last job ‘really hurt’. For many of us we spend a great deal of time trying to balance our emotional response to rejection by adding illogical thought processes to our perceived failure. We must be careful not to overgeneralise by thinking that we will never get that job we are seeking.
Whilst it is natural to feel disappointment I firmly believe that we must turn the negative into a positive and use it as an opportunity to grow. Try not to take the decision personally. Just because there was a better candidate on this occasion does not mean that you are not highly skilled and if given the opportunity would do a magnificent job. I’ve heard too many unsuccessful candidates dwell on negative self-talk by over analysing their own skills looking for points of failure rather than using it as an opportunity to sharpen their focus. You know the spiel “I just can’t do interviews”, “I can’t talk in that educational jargon”, “If they could just watch me work”. Whilst merit selection may not be the best system, it is the one within which we operate. You must look for the positives, your CV was strong enough for your referees to be called and your referees were strong enough for you to be invited to interview. It’s a process of which you have successfully covered a majority of the moving parts. Try to think of it not as a deficit but as preparation for the next challenge, for some it will be a short sharp sprint for others it’s a marathon, it can be a difficult task but in the end the reward will be worth it.
Over my 25 years in NSW Public Education I have had the opportunity to work with many high quality educators. For some, the road leading to the next opportunity has been long and sometimes arduous. I have tried to provide some proactive advice to assist in their journey. I believe the following few steps may be useful if you’re always the bridesmaid.
Highlight Your Strengths
Most people don’t like the idea of identifying their strengths and highlighting them. At interview this is exactly what you must do and it can be an incredibly difficult task. Prior to you interview you should take time to prepare examples that show your strengths and demonstrate how they can add value to the organisation you are joining. Doing your homework and identifying your role in an organisation is crucial to a successful interview. The panel wants to know how you are going to use your strengths to enhance their operation.
Get the Question Again
Don’t be afraid to ask for the question to be repeated. Sometimes we stray from the intent of our response and start to provide a series of unrelated examples. If you feel you are off track it can be difficult to realign mid answer. My advice is to stop, admit you have gone off course and ask for the question again. The panel would much prefer to hear an answer that relates to the question than a broad generalised response with no relevance to the question.
Review Your Questions
When leaving an interview it is always good practice to try to write the questions down and consider your responses. In the event that you are unsuccessful you can use these to assist you with preparation for prospective interviews to come. It provides you an opportunity to work on any questions that you may have had difficulty with during the interview. It can also be useful to talk through the questions with your referees as they sometimes can see elements in a question that you may have missed.
Always Seek Feedback
I am surprised at the number of candidates who do not seek feedback. This is the one way you can put your mind at ease with actual answers as to why this job was not for you at this time. As an employer I firmly believe it is our responsibility to give good quality feedback to each candidate to assist them with their profession al growth. Try to find out what the successful candidate did that gave them that edge.
Like most experiences interviewing well requires a certain skillset. As with most skills it requires practice. There are not many of us who are naturally talented at walking into a room full of strangers and performing on cue. Working with a coach or mentor to structure your interview answers and practice potential scenarios will allow you to provide true and accurate responses in the pressure cooker environment of the interview. How many times have you walked out of the room and thought ‘Why didn’t I say this?’ Practice interviews allow you to structure your responses and become adaptable when that curve ball gets thrown in.
Not getting the job doesn’t feel good, but it’s not the end of the world. If you have prepared well and performed your best then maybe the job just wasn’t the right fit for you. You have gotten to this point by working hard in a highly competitive environment. You may feel like it is never going to happen and those inner thoughts and feelings of self-doubt are natural. Recognising that this negative thought process is taking up energy and being proactive in channeling it into a productive plan for your next challenge will serve you well. No matter how many interviews you have, don’t let not being the chosen candidate keep you down. Keep your head up, keep looking for the right opportunities they will come along. Every bridesmaid has their day in the spotlight and when it comes you’ll be ready.
I’m a fraud! This thought hit me hard just recently. I observed some of the quality leaders around me and thought, I don’t measure up. They were so confident, so articulate, infallible to a point. I have good days and bad days sure, but not like these people. They are always on top of their game, never missing a beat, across every aspect of their learning to a degree I could only imagine – or so it would seem.
Have you ever been involved in an educational conversation full of jargon when all participants are nodding at the right times and interjecting with highly technical language? Did you feel out of your depth? Have you ever been invited to speak at a professional learning session or had your work singled out for the positive impact it has made? Did you question if you were the right person to be delivering the message? Was your work really of note? Did you question if you were worthy of the praise? Was there a nagging feeling that maybe you don’t deserve to be there? You rationalise by thinking that you’re just lucky, you’ve been in the right place at the right time, you’re not doing anything different when compared to other leaders. You then start to think, what if people start asking questions? What if they dig deeper? Then you have that sinking feeling of self-doubt. You feel like you don’t measure up. Did you feel like a fraud? Sound familiar? If so, then you’ve been held hostage by the Imposter Syndrome.
Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both American psychologists, named the Imposter Syndrome in the late 1970’s. Their work outlined the psychological fear felt by high achieving individuals who perceived themselves to be intellectual frauds waiting to be found out and exposed. They often questioned their ability to be mixing in the company of their colleagues, feeling like they were somewhat misplaced. In the minds of those who feel it they’re not worthy of the position they had worked so hard to find themselves in. Clance and Imes concluded that people who challenge themselves and place themselves outside their comfort zone are more susceptible. These people are in a state of growth, looking to learn new skills and refine their practice because they have a firm belief that they can always improve. Acknowledging that we are always learning, whilst embracing the growth mindset, can be challenging and potentially leaves us exposed to the Imposter Syndrome.
The sometimes debilitating Imposter Syndrome can strike us all, in fact research suggests that over 70% of people will feel this way at some stage in their career. The feeling that in some way we are undeserving, that our success has come more from luck and being in the right place at the right time, than from anything we have actually achieved is at the core of the Imposter Syndrome. We doubt our ability, question our decision making processes and look for reasons outside our influence for our success. Those who get struck often neglect to look at the fact that they work hard, they do their homework and sometimes they take the calculated risks that others won’t. What we sometimes forget is that we are currently in our positions because someone saw something in us and gave us the opportunity. In times when you doubt yourself, at least have faith in those that saw your potential and gave you the opportunity. Whilst you may believe that you were lucky to be afforded the opportunity, you proactively took it and made it your own. Far too often we undersell our hard work and commitment.
The more I’ve tuned into the Imposter Syndrome the more I’m recognising it in others. It’s allowed me to take stock of those who’ve also talked about feeling this way. From what I can see, in order to feel it you must be making a positive impact. I believe you can take it as a sign that you’re on track. You can fake it for a while but eventually it will catch up with you, smoke and mirrors only lasts so long. From what I’ve observed the real imposters don’t get the syndrome. They seem to be almost oblivious, claiming to be something that they clearly are not. They continue to sell the snake oil, pumping up their own tyres regardless of the lack of progress. They show little ability to reflect on their practice continuing down well-worn neural pathways of self-praise utilising small subsets of data and research to support their work. In comparison those that feel the Imposter Syndrome often feel self-doubt. They question the accuracy of data and research, wanting to make sure that they are hanging their hats on a solid foundation. They trial new initiatives not because they are popular but because they have a belief they can enhance practice. My advice is to embrace the feeling when it comes and use it as an opportunity for self-reflection. Reflect on the work and obviously look for continuous improvement, but occasionally acknowledge that you do have some skills that serve you well.
So now that you have recognised that you may have encountered the Imposter Syndrome, I believe the following steps may assist you in using it as a tool.
- Confide in someone you trust and talk it out, not to actively seek a compliment but to get some perspective on your feelings. They can help you take an objective look at what you have achieved and guide you to understand that you’ve actually played a part in your own success.
- Understand that it’s not always about the paper credentials, don’t think you have to be the most highly credentialed person in the room to have expertise. Remember a title does not always give you credibility.
- Listen to the language you use. Sometimes the low modality of our language subconsciously leads us down the path of self-doubt. Phrases like “I’m not sure”, “it could just be me”, “I hope I’m on the right track”, “maybe I’m missing the point” shows you don’t back your own judgement. Believe that you can operate in this space and feel comfortable having an opinion.
- Stop comparing yourself to others. I’m currently involved in a learning community where we are discussing our personal assumptions that limit us. What’s interesting is that there are a great deal of people who share the same insecurities in leadership positions, yet we often hold them up as the perfect being not knowing that their own internal dialogue may be very similar to our own.
- Understand that you are growing and that you can actually change your point of view when new information comes to hand. Having an alternate opinion doesn’t make you a fraud, it makes you human. Realise that you don’t know everything and that anyone who thinks you should has placed a unrealistic expectation on you.
- Occasionally, just take that compliment. It’s good to be humble but sometimes you just have to take the compliment and say thank you.
- Know that perfection is unattainable. Celebrate you successes by reflecting on what you did that worked and refining what didn’t.
I spoke to an aspiring leader recently who was doubting their recent promotion. They trotted out the usual “I’m lucky, right place right time” line. My advice to them was simple. You can’t continually be this lucky. Be comfortable with your success and continue to work hard to maintain it. Stop and take note of how far you have come and reflect on the effort it has taken you to get there.
If you’re not sure if you’ve ever been held captive by the Imposter syndrome, try taking this test. Maybe then you can recognise it and acknowledge that you’ve had something to do with your own success. http://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf
Self-belief is not arrogance, it’s not blind loyalty to a misguided cause. True self-belief comes from deep honest self-reflection underpinned by a strong moral purpose that your work is making a positive impact. Maybe I’m not a fraud after all.
I’ve just started a course that requires a high level of self-reflection and I’ve got to say it’s scary business. Reflection is something that we as leaders and indeed as educators do on a regular basis. We constantly try to find better ways to engage our audience, to deliver better outcomes for students, to strengthen and broaden opportunities for the communities we serve. Having said that there is a great deal of reflection on the behaviour of others. I’m questioning though, how deeply we reflect on our own behaviour?
As leaders we constantly analyse behaviour to look for answers as to why things did or do not happen. Unfortunately we are not always as good at analysing our own. It’s a brave thing to really reflect on your practice. There is a significant difference between thinking about what you have done and really reflecting on its impact. It’s not about negative self-talk, “I should have done this”, “Why did I do that?”’ “You’ve really messed up this time.” It should be a positive process of analysing your action, your responses and trying to identify your impact. Did your leadership drive the impact you were looking for? Did you, as I am learning at present subconsciously negate the possible outcome you were trying to achieve? It takes a great deal of courage to really drill down. It can be quite confronting at times and can leave you feeling very vulnerable when you see the harsh realities.
An easy way to dip your toe into self-reflection is by reading about leadership so you have an increasing understanding of what makes a good leader, observing others, listening to their stories and reflecting on how you would have responded in the same situations, or how you might approach a new situation. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and trying to identify a better way of doing things almost absolves you of any fault and allows a safe space to start the practice of self-reflection. There may even be some parallels to your own context that might enable you to make some positive change. From here you can began to look inwardly to really examine what it is that could be holding you back. It may be a chance to break out of a routine that may not be as effective or efficient as it first was. I’m not suggesting that we are all flawed, what I do believe however is that everyone not matter who you are has some personal characteristic that can be developed, grown or enhanced.
Reflection is hard. Sometimes we don’t know where to begin, or just don’t want to begin. It can be quite challenging. For many of us seeing an accurate picture of ourselves with deficiencies, faults and areas for improvement can be quite confronting. The egocentric among us will proclaim “it’s them who have the problem, I know what I’m doing”. The altruist will reflect quite harshly on how they have let others down. Getting the balance right may take practice. The point of reflection is to analyse your behaviours, actions and decisions, opening them up to personal scrutiny and facing your own fears about your own professional judgment. Without true deep self-reflection I believe that you may be limiting your potential. Subconsciously you know when your best effort was not put forward and denying this and not reflecting will not make it go away, it will always be there gnawing at you. The difficulty is being 100% truthful with yourself. We have an inbuilt self-protective system that allows us to reason and justify our actions. It’s one thing to recognise our limitations, it’s another to act on improving them.
Self-reflection is possibly the first practice you will discard when things get busy but that is probably the time when it is needed most. Done correctly it can help you make accurate decisions in stressful and busy times. It is actually a really helpful tool to keep you centred, remembering the why it is that you do something. Allowing yourself quarantined time to think about your work, maybe the car trip, maybe a sneaky cup of coffee on the way to or from work can provide great opportunities for this. The point being that if you don’t dedicate time for reflection, the full agenda takes over and you move on to your next task. It’s not just the thinking about your actions that’s important here. Making plans of action, developing pathways, exploring other alternatives and testing out theories are all part of the reflective process.
Next time you go for a walk leave the phone at home and use the time to truly reflect on your leadership, you might be amazed at the answers. Try answering the following questions:
- Are you making a positive impact? How do you know?
- Would your staff choose to work at a school you lead?
- Do staff choose to follow your direction? Do they do this because they want to or because they are directed to?
- How do you feel about coming to school? Are you happy?
There is a great poem on self-reflection by Peter Dale Wimbrow Sr titled “The Man In The Glass”, I highly recommend it.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back and cope with disappointment and I believe it’s an area we need to focus on better. During my childhood there were winners and there were losers. There were times when you were rewarded for a job well done and times when you missed out; because frankly the job you put in was just not good enough. As an educator, I’m observing a lack of resilience permeating across a range of areas within school communities. I am sure that I am not alone. In fact, I know I’m not. This is a conversation being held across all sections of our society. What I am also noticing however, is enormous amounts of resilience in the community I serve. When speaking with Principals across many disadvantaged communities they talk of similar stories. They see students who overcome enormous obstacles, trauma, economic and social disadvantage to flourish in our schools. So, why are there pockets of students who display a lack of resilience whilst others flourish and what are the factors that have created this? Is it a social change that has led us to this point? Do schools play a role? Has parenting contributed to the issue? What factors have caused this dramatic change?
Resilience is thought to be the result of a combination of factors including: individual character traits, positive thought patterns, social and emotional environments and the presence of positive relationships. It is believed that a successful combination of these factors helps to build up a person’s ability to act in a resilient manner. It is no surprise then that experiences that children have early in their life play a crucial role in the development of resilience. Being exposed to opportunities that foster self-regulation of emotions and setting boundaries that provide a stable set of rules to guide behaviour can lay a suitable foundation. In addition to this there is growing evidence that overcoming adversity as opposed to prolonged privilege can play a significant role.
Research suggests that there has been a significant shift between intrinsic motivation and a need for extrinsic reward. I believe we have perpetuated this shift through the era of ‘everybody gets a prize.’ There is an old saying ‘there are no prizes for second place’. However, now there are prizes for every place regardless of the merit. At my son’s football presentation everyone gets a trophy just for playing – there may well be a place for this, but is it an effective recognition mechanism? It seems there has been an increasing trend of rewarding mediocrity to ensure we nurture the emotional wellbeing of all involved. Whilst there is certainly a place for building emotional wellbeing, there must also be a place for realistic and honest feedback. Not everyone is good at everything, sometimes you will have to work harder and you may not get an award at the end of the day. From a whole of society perspective there is some merit in building strong, resilient young people who know that the only reward may be that the work is done. In the long run this has to have a positive impact for everyone.
The long term trend of helicopter parenting has certainly played a role in the reduction of resilience. Increasingly, parents are asking schools to become problem solvers for their children. We now have a generation of students who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have been raised by a society that carefully constructs all early interactions from play dates to indoor playgrounds and more recently non cheering sporting fields. Our children’s lives are so cautiously scrutinized that they are not given the opportunity to fail and develop their ability to problem solve and find a way out of uncomfortable situations. As parents we have placed safety nets on every corner. Students need to experience failure and realise they will survive it; life will continue. Being called a bad name, not being chosen for a team or getting out in a game is something that does not need adult intervention.
So what can we do to turn this around? We can start by reinstating the desire for intrinsic reward. We have spent a great deal of time over the last 25 years developing elaborate systems of extrinsic rewards that focus on the collection and accumulation of material possessions. This system has often led to the measure of our success being based on a numerical value. The higher the number, the greater the perception of our success. I believe the tide is turning however. We are seeing a ground swell in education where individualised and differentiated learning is developing students who are motivated to succeed by achieving personal mastery of targeted skills. There is a strong commitment to have students not just survive but to thrive by connecting and succeeding in their learning. Students are being given specific and appropriately challenging goals where success is developing personal fulfillment. I have seen students responding well to lessons that allow them to follow their interests and are customized to their level. It gives them ownership and triggers authentic learning. I am witnessing large numbers of students who are able to articulate what they know and what they need to know in their learning. This is a more positive approach than previous deficit models.
There is a growing awareness that personal thought patterns impact on resilience. This is certainly an area within our control. We need to rework our students thinking patterns. Many students believe that not knowing how to do something is the same as not being able to do it. We need to encourage our students to have faith in their ability to overcome whatever obstacles are in their path. They need to understand that new situations can be uncomfortable and difficult, but that this feeling is a part of new learning. By developing this thinking in our students we can begin to normalise setbacks and develop determination as a natural process. Students need to be comfortable with making errors and learning from their mistakes. They need to understand that it is OK to have areas that need developing. Our students who receive a ‘C’ in current reporting systems believe it is a failure. Many parents believe that their child is an ‘A’ or ‘B’ and that a ‘C’ is something that another child receives. The reality is that the vast majority of us sit within the ‘C’ area. We all have things to work on. The more we shape our thinking to understand that it is natural to have areas of development, the better off we will be.
Contextualising learning develops a connection to new learning and acts as a motivational tool for the completion of tasks. By making learning meaningful we are providing authentic opportunities for students to practice problem solving. Applied problem solving allows students to bring in background knowledge and apply new learning to situations that are relevant to their world. This allows students to identify the problem, think through possible solutions and evaluate their effectiveness before choosing an appropriate option. Most importantly in this process is the provision of quality feedback on progress and areas for development. We must set realistic goals with our students that encourage them to work hard for the basic reward of progressing and getting better. The motivating factor must be the achievement, not the piece of paper or sticker. The time is right for this type of motivation given the high level of gaming that our students are currently involved in. Gaming is based on rewarding perseverance and determination. To progress through the modern gaming world players must refine and hone their skills, without skill development the player will not progress. The reward is solving the problem, which in turn leads to a more difficult and complex level.
As a system we have a responsibility to develop high levels of resilience in our students. In NSW Public Education we have implemented The Wellbeing Framework for Schools that aims to have students contribute to not only their own wellbeing but the wellbeing of others across their school community. It is setting out a pathway that assists our students to become socially competent, optimistic problem solvers who have a healthy understanding of the ups and downs that we may face. When implementing this framework we must teach our all members of our school community that challenges and obstacles are opportunities for reflection and growth. Above all else we need to remind them that it’s a choice how you respond to adversity. If we work collectively to build resilience levels across our school communities, who knows, maybe we will all be winners.