Why bosses need to show their soft side
If you ever want to understand your boss, corner him (or her) at the next office party and see if he’ll play a little game. Tell him (or her) you need only 30 seconds. Then ask your boss to extend his (or her) right forefinger.
“Go ahead,” you might need to assure him, “this won’t hurt”
Then ask him to take that extended finger and draw a capital E on his forehead.
Does he draw the letter so that it faces him – that is, backward to a person looking at him? Or does he draw the letter so that the viewer can read it? Neither way is right or wrong. But the direction of that letter might tell you something about the disposition of that leader.
This seemingly innocent parlour trick is actually a method social scientists have used for more than a decade to measure perspective-taking – the ability to step outside one’s own experience and see the world from someone else’s viewpoint.
People who write the E so that it’s backward to themselves but legible to their partner have taken the other’s perspective. Those who draw the E so that it’s readable to themselves but backward to others haven’t bothered to consider the other person’s point of view.
In an intriguing set of experiments a few years ago, a group of American social scientists led by Adam Galinsky at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management used the E test and some other techniques to investigate the connection between power and empathy. They found that while most people seem naturally inclined to take the other’s perspective, providing people a dose of power correlated with their being less likely to draw the E in the perspective-taking way. In other words, a surplus of power seemed to be connected, and perhaps even led, to a deficit of empathy.
As the researchers wrote: “Across these studies, power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see, think, and feel.”
This finding might reveal what’s gone wrong with leadership at every level. On the altar of action orientation and tough-mindedness, we’ve sacrificed the fundamentally human quality of empathy.
To be sure, empathy shouldn’t be the only quality of leaders. If an executive is too worried that a decision might hurt Caroline’s feelings or make Rajiv sad, he’ll never get anything done. Thinking strategically and acting vigorously are essential.
But action orientation without sufficient empathy has at least two flaws. First, people resist going along with proposed actions, which can impede progress. It’s a sturdy principle of organisational life that people quit bosses, not companies. Second, if people do go along, they do so reluctantly, leading to an atmosphere of compliance rather than engagement.
The key is to strike a delicate balance between action-orientation and perspective-taking. It’s not a matter of deciding between hitting your numbers or drawing the E. It’s a matter of hitting your numbers by drawing the E.
What’s more, unlike many technical skills, empathy is extremely difficult to shift to low-cost providers and nearly impossible to reduce to lines of code in a computer program – which makes it a scarce, and therefore more valuable, commodity.
That’s why empathy is racing into many other business functions. For instance, medical schools, especially in the US, are using questionnaires to measure empathy levels of young physicians because scores on this empathy index correlate with patient outcomes in ways that traditional metrics do not.
Designers are donning thick glasses to distort their vision, sticking cotton in their ears to reduce their hearing, and slipping on garden gloves to limit their dexterity – all in an effort to design better products and services for the elderly by empathizing with what it’s really like to be old.
And when so many consumer transactions can be executed online, learning how to see the world from the perspective of customers and prospects has become integral to customer service and sales.
Yet somehow in the higher reaches of business, even in our supposedly more enlightened era, empathy, when it’s discussed at all, is often dismissed as frivolous or, worse, “soft.”
A few months ago, I was talking to the dean of an American business school. He told me that when alumni return to campus to guest lecture, the current students invariably ask them a version of this question: As you think back on what you learned in B-school, what do you wish you had paid more attention to or had studied more?
And invariably the answer is the same.
“I’m glad I studied finance and accounting and the quantitative subjects,” the graduates say. “But I wish I had taken all that soft stuff more seriously.”
After they left the orderly farm of a case study for the roaring jungle of a real business, it turned out that what seemed superficially soft – organisational behaviour, psychology, people smarts, communication and, yes, empathy – were crucial. Spreadsheets are easy. Spreadsheets never get bored, call in sick, or lose their motivation.
But influencing people requires more than simply putting the correct number in the proper cell and applying the right formula. And since most corporate managers have reasonably sound technical skills, as well as access to the same information and tools, mastery of these nominally soft aptitudes is creating a fault line that’s separating who moves up and who
So if you’re a boss, especially a new one, sprinkle a few seasonings on your newly acquired bowl of power. Talk less, listen more. Treat everybody with respect. And if one of your employees asks you to draw a vowel on your forehead, you know what to do.
Daniel H Pink writes abou the world of work. His most recent book is Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.