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  • Tamar Balkin

How Can A Leader Balance Empathy And Assertiveness?

“I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath
Scared to rock the boat and make a mess
So I sat quietly, agreed politely
I guess that I forgot I had a choice
I let you push me past the breaking point
I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything”

 Katy Perry, Roar (click here for the song)

Personal Picture

One of my clients is responsible for the development of a new technological solution that should revolutionise the way his organisation conducts business both internally and externally. This week he described the following concern: “Every time I go to an internal meeting with the CFO it is awful. She literally dictates her list of needs to me. If I try to ask a question or raise an issue she talks over me. No one else in the senior executive behaves in this way. Whilst the behaviour hasn't 'crossed the line', I am genuinely worried that one day I am going to loose it. Taking a deep breath or any other emotional regulation hack just doesn’t cut it any more.”

Regular readers would be aware that emotional intelligence is the critical leadership competency for dealing with the complexity of interpersonal interactions in the workplace. When a leader has the capacity grasp the emotional dimensions of a business situation, then they can influence others to achieve productive outcomes.

Can you connect emotionally without condoning inappropriate behaviour?

The fundamental elements of empathy, namely suspending judgement and being curious to the circumstances of another person is never an easy task. Be mindful that empathy in the context of a person who is  also causing you grief is never easy, be sure to allow time for preparation, and perspective and do not be reluctant to access confidential support.

My client began to realise that beyond the usual demands of the role, the CFO was experiencing increased and relentless scrutiny from the: CEO; board; peers; shareholders; regulators; employees; customers; stakeholders; and the media. In addition my client explained “The CFO takes a very personal approach to her work, despite the large size of our organisation, I know  they view every customer and employee as important individuals, almost like family members. Whilst the care means they have high quality of work, it also seems to place an insurmountable level of responsibility and pressure on themselves.”

Regular readers would recognise that my client was beginning to think empathetically about the CFO and had started to consider the possibility that gaining an understanding the rationale behind someone's behaviour is not necessarily synonymous with condoning the behaviour. (Click here for my blog on empathy).

Shared purposes are the foundations of positive effective relationships, thus empathy for another persons circumstances enables the identification of common challenges and aligned goals.  In addition, the conscious effort to be curious and take an alternative logical perspective to a situation has the added benefit of calming strong negative emotions.

The key to influencing others is responding to their practical and emotional needs. Do not underestimate peoples' fundamental need to be heard and understood, and thus the power of being empathetic. 

Can you influence the behaviour of others when they are causing you grief?

When others behave towards us in an impolite manner, extreme reactions are common, yet neither passivity or aggression are effective or appropriate.  To avoid either extreme you need to be:

  • Calm and emotionally neutral;

  • Suspend judgement;

  • Understand the other persons' emotional and practical needs:

  • Have a clear and realistic sense of your primary goals or motive;

  • Able to express concisely what is important to you and why; 

  • Be prepared to reinforce your point of view again, by calm repetition.

Do not be fooled by the apparent simplicity of this approach, being politely assertive or straightforward (as Martyn Newman refers to it) is a complex interpersonal skill and requires preparation, practice, feedback and refinement.

What about the unexpected?

Regular readers would know that life is messy and typically we don’t have the time to reflect and prepare for all unpleasant situations. Looking after your wellbeing will help to ensure that your baseline emotional state is rational and calm. Continuing to improve your self-awareness and emotional regulation will increase the likelihood that when pressed you will be calm and polite. It is also possible that you are retaining the content of my blogs and thus you will behave in an emotionally intelligent and straightforward manner.

The fishermen know that the sea is dangerous and the storm terrible, but they have never found these dangers sufficient reason for remaining ashore.

Vincent Van Gogh

What about my client?  

As we were scheduling his next coaching session he paused and said, "I know I need to get out of my comfort zone and try this. I hope I am able to be patient with myself as as I begin to finesse my EQ skills in this very challenging situation"

For a reminder of the complexity of long term sustained behaviour change see my past blog.

Final caveat

Please be mindful there are some behaviours that are completely unacceptable, and may require a different approach. If in doubt contact an HR expert or an employment lawyer.


Available on request.

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