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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.
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.
There are lists aplenty when it comes to what makes a great leader. They need to be courageous, creative, ethical, compassionate, strong, connected and have the ability to make strategic decisions in the best interests of the communities they serve. However when stress takes hold, when the workload builds up and that overwhelming feeling rushes over us like an insurmountable wave our focus can be impacted and we run the risk of losing sight of what is really important. I read an article recently that stated that two thirds of leaders surveyed in the study believed that their stress level is higher today than it was 5 years ago. Why is that? In some ways I guess it’s a rhetorical question. We know the demands of the job are increasing, we know the skill set is expanding; we know too well the hours are extending. I know at times the day to day demands can be intense. I hear about leaders who are feeling the pressure to keep up with the evolving nature of the educational landscape. We are certainly under the microscope of producing results, having impact from an intense educational reform platform. So, what impact is this having on our leaders and what can we do to right the ship?
In my conversations with colleagues there seems to be a culture of soldiering on. We are leaders, we can deal with pressure, we don’t have time to slow down, the work needs to be done. It could be perceived as a sign of weakness if we we’re not coping. I also hear of some colleagues who feel they need to appear to be stressed as if there is some unwritten expectation of leadership that you need to be over worked, overloaded and turning out eighteen hour days. Whilst I agree as leaders we need to work hard, we should work hard, we are tasked with a great deal of responsibility. I also believe that we need to strike the right work life balance. We need to be able to identify our own signals of stress and ensure we are able to put things in place to manage our wellbeing and the wellbeing of our staff……..outlets away from work for every leader are vitally important.
So what are the things that seem to cause us stress? During this period of significant educational reform the ever increasing workload plays a major role. We seem to almost get a handle on one concept and another is handed to us, with two more waiting in the wings and then the required compliance matters which never escape us. As leaders we need to be very focussed on what is important. What is it that will have impact? If it has no impact, if it does not relate to what will make a difference for students then eliminate it. It’s been said thousands of times before, but doing a few things well is far better than doing a number of things poorly. Assess what is achievable and work towards it, when we overload our schedules we set ourselves and others up for failure. Much of our stress comes from circumstances beyond our control. Whilst I recognise that we can never eliminate all of the low impact initiatives, we must certainly do everything in our power to make sure the main thing, is the main thing. Focus on what you can take carriage of and make a difference in that area. The external pressure will always be there, by acknowledging this and accepting that it is beyond your control allows you to move on and get on with the job. I believe this is a positive and proactive approach. Showing leadership in this area will not only reduce your stress but will go a long way to eliminating the stress of your staff.
It can be highly stressful dealing with conflict and difficult personalities. I know of many leaders who lose sleep thinking about how they are going have a difficult conversation. The ability to mediate and lead negotiations between personalities to find successful outcomes can be a very difficult and taxing process. It can be challenging to find common ground and at times decisions need to be made that may not please opposing sides. This can weigh heavily on us as leaders. It is common that one side will have a very limited view and cannot see the wider implications of their actions. This tests our skill when trying to navigate these discussions making sure that we listen attentively whilst trying to guide both parties to a successful resolution. Understanding the difference between personal and professional opinion and being able to distinctly separate them so that your judgement is not clouded can be a difficult task. I’ve found that having a plan, thinking through the conversations and trying to anticipate alternatives is helpful and assists greatly in preparation for potentially difficult conversations. Identifying your personal and professional opinion on the subject and trying to view it from the first floor rather than ground level gives some perspective. In difficult conversations perception can become reality for some, so trying to consider how your responses may be perceived is also a useful preparation tool. If you are temporarily able to see your responses through the eyes of others and utilise a degree of emotional intelligence you can be more strategic in your management which maximises the opportunity for a successful resolution.
Another area of frustration I hear from leaders is the roller coaster ride that is maintaining momentum in the implementation of initiatives. We see it regularly. The high quality professional learning has been delivered, the fire in the belly has been ignited, and there is a definitive way forward. The staff are on board, you can almost smell the enthusiasm and passion in the air and then 24 hours later, it’s died down and the flaws in the plan have been highlighted. The reasons why it can’t be achieved have taken you on the one step forward, two steps back dance. I know that feeling I hear you say, it happens here, I leave work in the afternoon feeling great and then by the next morning the weight is firmly back on my shoulders. I believe that we need to focus on progress not perfection. We need to look for and celebrate the small steps forward. Setting long term goals with small increments built in develops the idea that drops in a bucket add up. I’ve found this approach alleviates the frustration. It allows you to anticipate the road blocks and set appropriate detours along the way. Take time out to celebrate the progress and reflect on the incremental achievements. But most importantly don’t ride yourself too hard, there are many working parts to a well-oiled machine and sometimes they just need a little extra oil.
We know that stress can hinder us, but it can also be a force that fortifies our efforts. To use it as a motivator we need to be able to recognise it coming on and monitor our own stress responses. I know when I’m getting stressed. I lose focus, I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, I feel like I will never get the work done. I look at the list, the pile of papers, the full calendar and try to navigate safe passage. I don’t listen as well at this time, I know I’m preoccupied thinking about what needs to be done. It’s at this time that I have to stop and go for a walk, visit a class, take a time out. This short period away allows me to develop some perspective. The work will get done, it always does. In times of high stress I believe we have a tendency to over think the work, to make things more complicated than they need to be. I find making a list of what needs to be done today and what can wait helps to put things in perspective. Thinking about each task and asking, will it really matter if it does not get done today? Defining the task and clarifying what the expectation is assists in bringing it to its simplest form making it more manageable. Using this method I can make an immediate to do list allowing me to focus on the most important tasks in an organised manner. I then set very clear timeframes, you will not be doing your best work during an all-nighter. Be realistic about what you can achieve, depriving yourself of sleep and some down time will not help alleviate your stress. Remember balance is key. Making time to unwind, prioritize what is important. Sometimes the task immediately in front of us gets all the attention when it could possibly be the task that can wait. It’s important to think the tasks through and evaluate what has to be done today and by whom. I believe this is critically important as leaders. If we can use this method when running our eye over the whole school we can help alleviate the pressure our staff feel as well. Let them know they have time, ensure they are able to identify what is important and allow them the ebb and flow of a balanced work environment.
As the leader of your workplace the culture you create in ensuring that there is the right balance rests solely on your shoulders. Listen carefully, observe closely and lead by example in maintaining a healthy balance. Getting the work life balance can be difficult thing, but it’s vitally important. Your wellbeing goes a long way to ensuring the wellbeing of your staff. The right balance starts at the top. People will look to you to see what the expectation is. I’ve often listened to world class athletes who whilst working at the top of their personal performance on a daily basis also talk about the importance of recovery. They spend almost as much time preparing and performing as they do systematically recovering in preparation to do it all again. They also take time to discuss their performance and schedules with someone. Reaching out and talking to a colleague can help put things in perspective. Stress is part of leadership, you can let it rule you or you can take charge. After reading this blog why not try to answer the following questions. What are you doing to recover? How do you manage your stress? Do you recognise the signs? What strategies have you got in place to alleviate it? Develop a plan, because we need you to be at the top of your game every day. Our students are too important for you not to be. At the end of the day you are charged with making a positive impact on the students you serve, I’m sure you’ll agree that thought alone has a positive impact on your wellbeing.