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How can I become a more empathetic leader? Practice, practice, practice

This article was originally published in Fast Company.

Bo, an engineering manager at SAP, once noticed a visible tension between two key people on his team at a scrum meeting. His team leader for the project, Miriam, was at odds with Patricio, who she had asked to drive quality assurance. Bo watched them argue in a meeting. He then posed a few questions to understand what positive contributions each was bringing to the table. Bo acknowledged what he heard and helped both parties view the situation from the other’s perspective. This eased the tension.  Later, he coached them on how they could communicate better. 

Patricio and Miriam discovered through their subsequent dialogue that Patricio did not really know the quality assurance process. This had left Miriam feeling let down, overburdened, and stressed. In turn, it had created a stressful environment for Patricio as he was pouring much energy into the project, only to find Miriam continuing to push for more.

At Bo’s instruction, Miriam and Patricio came up with a solution that involved shifting roles among team members, so that Miriam could gain the resources she needed and Patricio could contribute in the best possible way to advance the project. 

Bo was not born knowing how to handle situations like this. He had engaged in a multi-month program at SAP in which soft skills are taught with the same rigor as hard skills. And he did not merely learn these skills in a few inspiring afternoon webinars. As part of his training, he had been guided to experiment with new behaviors by engaging in small missions at work, and to prepare for situations like the one with Miriam and Patricio where he needed to inspire his team or manage conflict.

In order to get Bo, and the other 155 SAP engineering leaders who have gone through the program to apply their skills in a personalized, agile, authentic way to their own real leadership challenges, it was necessary to innovate along both what we teach and how we teach, when we develop leaders. Mentora Institute, a leadership and research organization, partnered with Stanford University’s Jamil Zaki, and SAP’s Ferose V.R. to build a program that aimed at delivering measurable improvements in managers’ performance. And we succeeded: Managers who went through the coursework increased their performance twice as much as a control group.

A Change In What We Teach

At the center of our approach are three design principles we’ve established at Mentora Institute on how to develop great leaders, based on an analysis of 1,000+ exemplary leadership interactions: meetings, conflicts, conversations, speeches, hard decisions and more.

First, exemplary leaders approach every interaction with a positive intention, of bringing out the best in themselves and the best in others in their pursuit of a positive collective purpose. Central to the SAP managers’ journey was this shift in attitude toward showing up with a commitment to maximize their impact in all situations.

Second, the way these leaders bring out the best in themselves and others is by activating five core Energies: Purpose (a commitment to pursue a noble, uplifting cause), Wisdom (a calm receptivity to the truth—with all its nuances—in every situation), Growth (a continual striving to approach one’s full potential), Love (a fostering of warmth, understanding and connection), and Self-realization (a stirring of the human spirit that lies at one’s core).

Lastly, leaders express these energies through a small set of simple actions. For instance, in Bo’s interactions with Patricio and Miriam, he was using, and coaching his two team members to use, the following actions:

  1. Understand Before You Act, by observing their interaction and asking them questions,
  2. Empathize, by acknowledging what he’d heard and how they were feeling,
  3. Disarm, by helping them view things from the other party’s perspective, and
  4. Fuse Opposites, by having them integrate their seemingly opposing positions into an overall win-win.

These four actions help express the energies of Wisdom (a, b, and d) and Love (c).

Each action can typically be executed in five to 10 seconds. We taught SAP’s managers 25 actions, all based on behavioral science.

A Change In How We Teach

We went beyond inspiration to help participants build habits of mind and heart. Each week, across a series of months, participants learned how to activate a specific core energy, but the learning did not stop there. They practiced using these actions in a realistic scenario in which they spoke to a team member and received peer feedback. Given the five-minute format for these exercises, they were able to engage in multiple iterations of practice and feedback.  

Then, managers engaged in real-world missions, such as bringing team members together to debate a real issue they needed to resolve on which they held competing views. A mission entails applying actions you’ve recently learned to a real situation where you bring out the best in yourself and others, and to then write a note about your context, how you used the actions, and the outcome. To help participants pursue growth as a team sport, they spent time in learning groups sharing their missions, discussing other leadership challenges they faced, and seeking advice from one another. Learning groups provided accountability and a space where participants could continue to work on their leadership challenges over time, experimenting, getting feedback, and revising their approach. 

After learning all 25 actions, participants took part in a Behavior Lab, where they brought specific personal challenges and goals on which they wanted to advance their impact. “How do I inspire my team?”or “How do I manage this conflict?” or “How do I influence this individual?” They explored which core energies and actions would be most valuable to them, and in what order, to improve the way they may have otherwise approached the situation. Then, under our guidance, they did “real-plays” with their peers to practice these action-paths and prepare for high-stakes engagements with their team and other stakeholders.

We were able to grow Bo and his peers as managers through a training model that is attainable, because it involved a small set of very simple, relatable actions spanning the 5 Core Energies, agile, because it allowed managers to rapidly switch from one action to another as a situation unfolds, and authentic, because it trained managers to first shift their thoughts, emotions, mindsets and intentions from within, and then express these through the right speech and behavior on the outside. Bo was thus ready when the moment arose to find the right actions to guide his team.  

A Final Thought

In this work at SAP, we have sought to establish that soft skills and hard skills are a false dichotomy. Hard skills are rapidly softening as their productive lifespan rapidly reduces—currently it is estimated that half-life of such skills is five years. Soft skills, on the other hand, have been steadily hardening, gaining  prominence as essential for survival and relevance in this decade and beyond.

Put another way, soft skills are now the bedrock on which rapidly changing technical skills grow and evolve. Effectively, this puts managers in the position of role models and amplifiers of soft skills, as they create the conditions which can either encourage or stifle key behaviors like learning and taking risks. The way to do it, we believe, is to put empathy at the core and ambition at the edges. With clear and mounting evidence, we see that empathy at the core creates the psychological safety and trust necessary to take risks, especially in persisting past failure. Ambition at the edges creates the conditions for stretching oneself and striving for excellence, essential for success in today’s world. Taken together, it is a combination we believe is the key to the long-term success of the individual, team and company.

This article was originally published in Fast Company.