You never will be too empathetic!


Didier Marlier

April 19, 2019

From Disruption to Engagement

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Recently, Korn-Ferry published an article about feedback, which was quickly interpreted by some as “too much empathy isn’t good!”. My reply to one of them was that, after 35 years of professional life, I was still expecting to find anyone loaded with too much empathy! As a leader, no one will ever demonstrate too much empathy!

Empathy elicit outstanding contribution from our people and here are three contexts where it can be used without moderation:

Feedback should always be empathy based: There are three types of feedback:

  • Negative feedback: Which Brazilians poetically nickname “fodeback” (f… back) which sound like “payback time!” This is the sort of “feedback” we give when we are still deeply upset by the mistake, underperformance or misbehavior of the person. Chances are high that the words, the tone, the face, the gestures we’ll use will testify of our anger, disappointment, disrespect or unconscious willingness to “hurt back”. This “feedback” never should be given as it doesn’t help the person change nor develop and it certainly doesn’t improve the trust and respect in our relationship.
  • Reinforcement feedback: That is not the generic and useless feedback (fantastic, great, awesome!) we so often hear, it specifically helps the person reflect and understand about what they did in order to improve the level of their game. Frequently, after we have been “on stage”, my partners and I partners will come and… ask the performer: “You were much better at delivering the message, connecting with the audience, getting your point across etc. What did you do differently?” Reinforcement feedback must not be associated with weakness, cowardice nor avoidance. It is the most powerful of the three feedbacks but has to be given with authenticity and not as an easy way out. If interested, I suggest you re-read this article posted 2 years ago, “Give us self-confidence, not feedback”: The people who asked for that weren’t “shrinking violets”, one was an ex Navy Officer and the second a field journalist whose professional pictures show her with helmets and bullet proof jackets on the battlefield.
  • Constructive feedback: This is, intellectually and empathetically, the most interesting and challenging feedback to craft and deliver: How to deliver a developmental and respectful feedback, whilst being absolutely clear that our level of expectation hasn’t been met? How do I take a strong stand whilst not breaking Psychological Safety? How do I maintain the energy of the person while telling her she is on the wrong path? This step requires courage and empathy once again!

Challenge and Support are empathy based: The Challenge vs Support matrix is one of the basis of our practice. They are an extremely delicate blend which leaders need to balance in function of the individual and/or the circumstances.

  • Challenge: In French we have a proverb which says “Idleness is the Mother of all vices”. People perform at your level of expectation; lower the bar and they may slow the rhythm down. But, push them above their limit, humiliate them in public, appear to be dismissive or punishing or cast (even unintentionally) fear around you and rapidly stress, lack of trust will emerge. Empathy is needed here to know exactly what to do/tell and what not to.
  • Support: is not about being Mr. Nice Guy, it is about finding where people need encouragement and in which format. This requires putting myself in their shoes, which is a description of… empathy.

Creating a high performance team, means empathy: a highly symbolic demonstration of what empathy (and the lack of it) do to the level of performance of a team goes back, for me, to 1998. On that July 12th, the incumbent France beat the favourite, Brazil 3-0 in the Football World Cup final. Even if, like me, you knew very little about football, the contrast was shocking between a liberated, daring, cohesive and fun-having French team and a fear stricken, mecanical, uncoordinated Brazilian collection of stars. The motto of French coach Aimé Jacquet was “Kill the fear”. He was close to his players and seemed to know them inside out. He nevertheless didn’t shy away from a solid discussion with any of them. In a recent article, a psychologist, close from New Zealand’s All Blacks revealed that the secret to their amazing long-lasting domination of the rugby world, was based on the vulnerability which exists as the pivot of the team’s culture… Empathy, empathy, empathy!

Herebelow shows an example of what empathy by adequately blending Challenge and Support, can deliver in terms of performance (Thank you Olivier Tétard, MBA NEOMA for having brought it to my attention):
Nothing goes right in this match for Daria Kasatkina, a young and highly promising Russian tennis player, and she has already one and a half feet out of the tournament, having lost one set and being breaked on the second. See how her coach reacts…

Enjoy your Leadership Journey!


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