The #1 reason why employees have to leave you – and what the Trans­for­ma­tio­nal Power of Empa­thy has to do with it

Leading Effec­tively with Empa­thy” is a 2‑day work­shop I have been success­fully faci­li­ta­ting for an inter­na­tio­nal logistic firm since 2017.

It star­ted when the HR busi­ness part­ner of that logistic firm was atten­ding my Systemic Busi­ness Coaching Programand then invi­ted me to design a leaders­hip program for their inter­na­tio­nal leaders – who work in a culture that is extre­mely defi­ned by pres­sure and leading-by-numbers.

I remem­ber, that – when the work­shops were announ­ced in the orga­ni­sa­tion – no one was realisti­cally coun­ting on getting a signi­fi­cant number of leaders to sign up for it. We all thought: who would be working in a logistics company with THAT kind of culture AND be inte­res­ted in empa­thy at the same time? Yet, the HR busi­ness part­ner – who had had the expe­ri­ence of the trans­for­ma­tio­nal power of empa­thy in my systemic busi­ness coaching trai­ning – was commit­ted to brin­ging empa­thy into this rather life-alie­na­ting leaders­hip culture. 

The response was overwhelming.

More than 100 leaders signed up immedia­tely to learn about how to address ‘the human factor’ in leading people. The program’s success soon crea­ted further demand – and resul­ted in an advan­ced work­shop design for ‘Leading Effec­tively with Empa­thy Part 2’. So far, I have led 28 work­shops in German and English for leaders from all over Europe and beyond. During this time, I have encoun­te­red many highly dedi­ca­ted leaders – often willing to sacri­fice even most of their private life for the success of the organization

Yester­day I was leading day one of ‘Leading Effec­tively with Empa­thy Part 2’ in English – and some­thing amazing happened! Which repres­ents to me the very purpose of why I actually do what I do. It star­ted like this…

I asked the parti­ci­pants in the check-in round “What made you come back for Part 2?”. One of them answe­red: “Oh, well, you know, your work­shop did not collide with my holi­days this year. That is pretty much the only reason I signed up for it.”

I respon­ded “Oh, what a wonder­ful coin­ci­dence…. And it may turn out not to be a coin­ci­dence after all, who knows?”

As the day procee­ded, I obser­ved that this parti­cu­lar parti­ci­pant hadn’t been step­ping forward to ‘enter the arena’, as Brené Brown calls it, but prefer­red to stay in the role of a spec­ta­tor. When I addres­sed it he said: “I do not feel enough trust to step forward. I need more time.“ I suggested anot­her way of looking at this: “So, you intend to wait for trust to come to you – so you can find the courage to step out of our comfort zone? Imagine: this work­shop may be over, before that happens! I invite you to make a CHOICE to step out of our comfort zone FIRST. Then, AFTER having an actual expe­ri­ence, I believe trust will follow.”

He paused and looked at me and said: “Now you’ve lost me. I have no clue what you are talking about.”

Then, in the after­noon I invi­ted the group to prac­tice ‘empa­thic conver­sa­ti­ons’ in the context of a chal­len­ging situa­tion and asked for volun­te­ers. To my surprise, he raised his hand! 

He chose to prac­tice a chal­len­ging conver­sa­tion with his supe­rior whom he descri­bed as: super­fi­cial, unsup­por­tive, holding back infor­ma­tion, brushing things off, not listening and comple­tely igno­ring the impact of his own beha­vior. Feelings of frus­tra­tion, anger, pain and even resi­gna­tion became very obvious as he was giving us the brie­fing for the set up. 

He star­ted the conver­sa­tion with a peer repre­sen­ting his supe­rior – and spoke nonstop for 5 minu­tes! Simply venting his anger and frus­tra­tion. When he told his “boss” that he was actually consi­de­ring quit­ting his job after 25 years of full dedi­ca­tion to this one company, his chin began to trem­ble and tears star­ted coming to his eyes. Finally he was in touch with what was emotio­nally alive in him. Expres­sing his pain, he became more and more relie­ved of the tension he had been carry­ing around for years! The rest of us were allo­wed to witness it and the room became very silent.

After­wards, I approa­ched him and asked what would happen if he WERE to actually HAVE the conver­sa­tion with his boss. He was quick to respond: “There is no way I am ever going to talk like this to my boss! He never listens, it makes no sense at all.”

I thought to myself: Somehow this is not over yet. I wonder what is wanting to happen now…? Later that evening I recei­ved a call in my hotel room from him. He shared with me, that he would not attend the second day of the workshop.

Why?”, I asked him.

He said: “I actually DID call my boss after dinner. And told him about my feelings, my needs and what I was missing. And he respon­ded comple­tely diffe­rent. He was under­stan­ding – and we deci­ded to meet tomor­row to sort things out.”

Wow!”, I said, “what made it possi­ble for you to find the courage to speak up like you did?”

He answe­red: 

When I did the role play this after­noon and all that pain came up, I had an insight: I wasn’t actually that afraid of my boss’s response. The truth is: I was really afraid of confron­ting my own fear of feeling like a failure.”

This is what I call an insight. A very power­ful one, too.

What had actually happened here? I have seen it happen so many times. Yet, it seems like a force too rarely tapped into by leaders. By connec­ting with his feelings and needs, by making hims­elf vulnerable and espe­cially by letting go of his need to ‘be right’ about his boss, he was able to let go of his ‘enemy image’. He re-direc­ted his atten­tion to what was true for him under­ne­ath the self-protec­tion, blame and projec­tion. And – this is one of the most power­ful realiz­a­ti­ons – then he was able to take full respon­si­bi­lity for what he cared about and needed. Now no more a victim, rather a player. And then he was able to take an action he had not even thought possi­ble a few hours earlier. 

And THAT is the trans­for­ma­tio­nal power of empa­thy.

Now, imagine: what must it be like to work in an envi­ron­ment where EVERYONE is able to prac­tice self-empa­thy, to take full respon­si­bi­lity and then take the action that can actually make the diffe­rence that they really are wanting. Just imagine. IMAGINE. What would that be like? We have an idea of how orga­niz­a­ti­ons can get there.

What I forgot to mention …. Previously, my candi­date had been handed anot­her area of respon­si­bi­lity – but without being consul­ted by his supe­rior at all! My perso­nal guess is: his supe­rior thinks so highly of him and belie­ves that my candi­date is capa­ble of doing that. On the other hand, my candi­date has since to lead people who do work he knows abso­lutely nothing about! Not Knowing is what makes him feel inse­cure, incom­pe­tent and at the risk of feeling like a failure. 

I guess that shame was the feeling he needed to avoid at any cost. I believe that this kind of chal­lenge is going to become the ‚new normal’ and leaders had better get used to it. Leading in the Not Knowing with lots of unfa­mi­liar varia­bles – and to do an excel­lent job as a leader at the same time. THAT is the real chal­lenge. I believe that one of the most important compe­ten­cies in the future for leaders and employees alike, is to be flexi­ble and adap­tive when it comes to change.

Yet, it is a part of our human nature to protect oursel­ves and react with resis­tance, when we are nudged into the unknown. Howe­ver … change is the new normal! And empa­thy is one of the most power­ful keys to shif­ting the place where you operate from – espe­cially when you fall into your patterns of your immu­nity to change. With self-empa­thy, empa­thic spea­king and listening you connect to yourself on a deeper level and to what is true for you – in order to take sustainable and aligned action. 

This connec­tion with yourself makes you become compe­tent in adap­ting to the new and the unknown amazin­gly fast!

This is the trans­for­ma­tio­nal power of empa­thy. I was lucky enough to witness it happening. 

Once again.

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