In today’s climate, the times of uncertainties call for unparalleled leadership. There is a massive demand for those in executive management positions to show their humanity a substantial dose of empathetic leadership.
The truth is that empathy will motivate an organization through a crisis and also help the leadership to deal with any conflicted feelings.
Empathy is not a catchword or slogan; it is a leadership competency and skill required for developing productivity, engagement, and partnerships in any organization.
A critical part of empathy in leadership is providing emotional guidance and encouragement that will help every team member develop personally and professionally.
Leaders who show little or no empathy pay the price literally as one cannot inspire one’s team members or elicit loyalty.
Usually, many organizational cultures promote rules, rewards, and ideals that encourage honest communications including truthful and authentic dialogue.
They do this to create a positive public image of its leadership and how it operates or shields business processes and relationships from unnecessary disruptions and unanticipated changes.
At the same time, these restrictive cultures may seem necessary for success or survival. Still, they perpetuate deep dysfunction, democratization, and despair in the lives of those who work in such an environment.
In a dysfunctional corporate culture, the smiling faces presented to employees, members, and the general public, often mask unhappy repressive conflict-avoidant realities
. Indeed, it is rare in most organisations that employees or members feel entirely free to openly and honestly discuss what is going on, especially with those above or below them in the hierarchy or with outsiders, customers, and those with whom they conflict.
Naturally, organizations develop unspoken, unwritten rules and regulations for determining the safe and ideal moment to speak honestly within limited boundaries or stand the risk of losing the livelihood.
Sadly, these rules contribute to the creation of dishonest, inconsistent, unethical organizational cultures that encourage secrecy, covert behaviors, and silence, rewarding them and preventing employees or members from resolving their conflicts in some organizations.
On the other hand, by inspiring empathy, honesty, and openness; identifying and calling attention to negative and covert behaviors; clarifying shared values, and encouraging managers and employees to act ethically and responsibly; these same repressive cultures can be transformed, and the dysfunctional behaviors they generate can be discouraged.
However, cultural transformation requires a leadership team with a clear vision and a strong commitment to making their practices compatible with the new and evolving culture. Everyone in the organisation is required to make a difference in their behaviors for the cultural change to succeed and become sustainable.
Most importantly, the leaders must participate in defining the new culture, and they must be willing to implement it in ways that are consistent with what they wanted to create.
It is important to note that organisational cultures are virtually holographic, which suggests that every piece contains and reproduces the whole, meaning that it is impossible to change an isolated element in a culture without transforming the entire matrix of mutually reinforcing behaviours that interact with each other and give the culture its overall character.
This aspect of organisational culture allows it to be transformed by strategically changing, even minor, seemingly unimportant parts.
Some organisational cultures place a premium on conflict avoidance, while others reward accommodation or compromise.
Several highly competitive corporate cultures give high marks for aggression. Most organisations possess a subtle set of rules regarding who can behave, with whom, and over what.
When we scan most organisational cultures, we search in vain for signs of meaningful support for genuine collaboration with people with opposing views.
We hope for an open, creative dialogue regarding problems; honest, emphatic, self-critical leadership in addressing and responding to conflicts; and preventive, persistent, systemic approaches to resolution.
Instead, what we see are dismissive attitudes that regard conflict resolution as pointless or “touchy-feely.” An organisation with a conflict-averse culture rewards avoidance and accommodation.
Such organisations encourage an aggressive, hypercompetitive cultures that subtly or overtly permit retribution and reprisal for speaking the truth; bureaucratic rules that help passive-aggressive behaviour; hypocritical, self-serving leadership; and covert systems that are creating chronic, avoidable conflicts.
Sadly, in most organisational cultures,
it is rare that aggression, avoidance, and accommodation of conflicts require an explanation, but collaboration, honesty, openness, and forgiveness seem vaguely unacceptable. The apparent effects of this continuous immersion in battle are immediate, clear, and pervasive.
They include a brutalisation of the soul or conscience, the loss of capacity for empathy with the suffering of others, an overwhelming fear of violence, and anxiety about social acceptance, a cynicism about human worth, avoidance of social intimacy, a retreat into “eye service” behaviour and a “stick and carrot” atmosphere. These effects divert our attention from resolving conflicts or overcoming the fear of criticism, controversy, and retaliation.
Many organisations have developed entire ecosystems based on miscommunication and conflict avoidance in which team members spend an extraordinary amount of time hiding from honest communication.
They are stuck in unresolved disputes with others in the organisation, confused over unclear messages or body language, and unsuccessfully trying to make their needs and feelings heard and understood.
People in these cultures spend little time learning what their conflicts are about, what caused them, what upset people’s feelings, why they have such a hard time saying what they think and feel, or talking directly, openly, and honestly.
Following which they fail to learn from their conflicts and see how they should skilfully respond to their own strong emotions or those of others.
Empathetic leaders often go out of their way to seek divergent opinions, especially those that are different and challenge theirs.
These leaders also help others constructively challenge power and make it safe to do so. Leaders today must harness ideas, people, and resources from across boundaries.
To get the disparate team members to work together effectively, leaders need to know when to wield influence rather than authority to succeed, halt unproductive discussion, squash politicking, and make the final call towards a healthy organisational culture.
Sobande, is a PhD candidate in a US varsity.