UNDERWOOD: Leading through cooperation

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By Rick Underwood

Balancing between understanding and caring about how another feels and getting the job done is not easy, but it can be done. Whether we are a parent, grandparent, teacher, business owner, manager, or coach, our challenge is the same.

How can we reach our goals in and through those with whom we are responsible while maintaining some empathy for the other’s point of view? This article will address this challenge and offer some ideas about how to keep focus on the outcome while appreciating how it feels to the others involved.

Furthermore, we will discuss some of the benefits and results of this balanced approach to leadership.

Parents, grandparents, and guardians are constantly faced with the challenges of helping their young ones grow up and be responsible citizens. It seems like during the learning years there is a constant barrage of “Why do I have to do this” or “Why do we have to do that?”

Teachers have the tough task of creating an environment in which their students can learn without always being yelled at by their teachers.  Managers are charged with the responsibility of making sure employees get the job done without having to be micromanaged. 

It is always a balancing act to keep these two seemingly opposing forces in creative tension. If we are overly focused on our goals, we reduce our chances of reaching them because we tend to put too much pressure on others.  And if we are under focused, we face the same risk. Being over focused on an outcome or goal at all costs can work for the short- term but that does not work in the long-term.

Focus alone will not result in the fulfillment of ours and others’ goals. Focus and empathy will.

Empathy skills are those that involve paying attention to other people by listening, attending to needs and desires, and building relationships. Research has shown that people with good empathy skills inspire those around them[o4] , help them feel understood. We are more likely to get cooperation in accomplishing a mutual goal if those helping us feel valued and understood.

On the other hand a loving, empathic coach or leader with no focus might make others feel good but often does not reach the desired results. We need to learn to develop the ability to unite empathy and focus so we can see both our goals and the others’ goals at the same time. In other words we reach our own goals by nurturing the people we lead or teach or parent or manage in a way that helps them reach their own goals.

Art Horn in Gifts of Leadership: Team Building Through Focus and Empathysuggests a 2-step process he calls press and release.  

1.    Tough – “That’s the way it is” can be used when there is no option for change. Financial issues, employment matters, and decisions we have made that have to be accepted are situations that call for this kind of a response. For example, two people apply for the same job. Obviously both can’t get the promotion. Rather than just saying “It’s tough if you don’t like it,” a manager or boss, after telling the one who didn’t get the job might say, “The truth is that you could do this job.  You have the experience and the knowledge. You have been dedicated and I know you really wanted the position. I hope you will find a way to accept this decision and support the other person in her new role. Please don’t underestimate my respect for you.”

2.    “Okay, here’s what we’ll do.” After making an empathy gesture we offer a compromise with which both can live.

3.    “[o5] For this, I apologize. There are no excuses.” When we have made a promise and have not fulfilled it we might offer a straightforward apology without making excuses. For example, “I know I let you down and disappointed you. I am sorry. No excuses. I hope I can make it up to you.”

4.    “It’s actually good news.” This response can be used when the other person is missing the point or an opportunity. For example, if someone is upset because one of his colleagues didn’t do a report on time, but you know that by not doing the report your team will be able to take advantage of slightly higher performance statistics, you could say, “Yeah, I know it is frustrating when you were expecting the data on your desk and once again it is not there. In this case, it’s actually good news because I told him to hold off in order to include the latest sales. It’s going to affect all of our bonuses.”

There are many advantages to using this approach. Most folks accept the facts or truth better if the person sharing the news lets them know they understand how hearing this information feels to them. Further, this process tends to nurture the relationship rather than damage it. Finally, this way of delivering hard news helps the receivers to quiet the negative self-talk and maintain their self-confidence.

We can get the job done with and through others with a little for-thought and consideration. Go for it!


Rick Underwood is minister at Hempridge Baptist Church and a performance consultant and managing partner of the Leadership Management Institute. He can be reached at nextlevelinstitute@insightbb.com.