Soccer, Leadership and Empathy

My daughter’s soccer coach Paul Levy has written a book on leadership called Goal Play! Leadership Lessons from the Soccer Field. It may seem a curious title for a book on leadership, but Paul draws on his own experience turning around both the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center as well as his many years coaching girls’ soccer to explain his understanding of leadership and what it takes to create a work environment that is truly a successful team effort. Paul recommends that executives have ongoing 360 review built into their employment agreements to prevent them from developing blind spots, an idea I agree with wholeheartedly and one that resonates strongly with boss whispering: receiving specific feedback on one’s behavior as a leader is fundamental to the process, as is targeted coaching to develop insight into the behavior of others. The most important point that Paul makes in this chapter, though, is that “empathy between the leader and the team is the key element of [his] approach” to “creating an environment of respect for individual action and accomplishment.” He goes on to suggest that “empathy cannot exist unless it goes in both directions. When you ask people to open themselves up enough to learn, you have to likewise open up yourself enough to learn from them.” In the context of leadership, being willing to allow people who work for you to “hold themselves accountable to their own high standards” may mean letting go of your perceived control of your team and their actions and instead work to create an environment where learning can occur and mistakes can be made without fear of being perceived as incompetent. In soccer as in life, as one of his employees notes, “it is how we handle them [mistakes] that makes us who we are.”

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Your Brain on Power

Thanks to David Yamada’s blog Minding the Workplace, I learned about the findings of Dacher Keltner’s and others’ research on empathy and the effect power has on one’s neurology: according to the studies profiled in the story, the more powerful you become, the less able you are to have empathy for others. I contacted Dacher Keltner to see what resources he could share about the “emerging field of research that suggests powerful people who begin to forget their subordinates can be coached back to their compassionate selves.” He wrote back that there were many techniques to teach compassion that could be found at The Greater Good Science Center’s website. I was a little surprised by his answer, because I was expecting to learn about other approaches besides Boss Whispering that had been developed to work specifically with executives or others in positions of authority. Still, teaching compassion seems to be a step in the right direction.

What horses can teach us about ourselves

Thanks to Gary Scholz, a fellow member of the Boss Whispering Institute, I learned about the work of Koelle Simpson. Koelle helps people to connect to their feelings, using horses to mirror how a person is behaving and reflecting back to them how they present themselves in the world. This is not unlike the process of boss whispering, in which feedback is provided to an individual who is being perceived as abrasive. In both cases, the goal is to help someone develop insight into how their behavior and their feelings affect those around them.

What do you do when the abrasive boss is nice?

I have observed that a particular boss constantly undermines her team’s ability to be efficient and productive, even though she is respectful and extremely appreciative of her team members. As Laura Crawshaw has observed, when the TAD dynamic is in play, people are often caught in the crossfire. What is the TAD dynamic? Simply put, when someone feels that their survival is threatened, they become anxious and take action to defend themselves against both real and perceived threats. This Threat-Anxiety-Defense dynamic manifests in different ways at work, where people fear that they will be perceived as incompetent. In the case of this boss, she spends so much time and energy worrying about possible issues that she does not complete work until the very last minute, leading her team into one emergency after another, each of her own creation. Her worry also expresses itself as micromanaging, for example by editing and re-editing work product, amounting to what feels like a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic for those on her team. If she could develop insight into her own behavior, she might see that her fears consume her available resources and tax the ability of her team to do quality work – if you wait until the last minute, everything is rushed and hectic, making the work product more prone to error. This is but one example of the many unproductive behaviors she exhibits in an attempt to fend off perceived threats. The question is – who can intervene – her boss, who doesn’t realize that this is going on, or her team members, who bear the brunt of this dynamic? Some have told me it is not the team’s job to tell their boss how to do hers. Meanwhile, the team keeps checking things off their “to do” list in spite of their “nice” boss. Please share your experiences and solutions to this dilemma.

No New IEPs* – When the Principal is Abrasive

Public school districts often face the threat of budget cuts. In some districts, limited funding prevents all students from receiving a quality education when a disproportionate amount of funding goes to accommodate special needs students. Parents are often forced to become vocal advocates for their children and often feel they have taken on a second full-time job as they work to ensure that their children receive appropriate services. Often, attorneys and other independent experts are hired to help parents overcome the hurdles put in place by a district. When confronted with this set of challenges, some principals react by behaving abrasively toward parents and the professionals they have retained to assist them. I don’t envy the difficult task that principals face in these situations, but it is easier to work toward viable solutions when everyone at the table is treated with respect.

*Each public school child who receives special education and related services must have an Individualized Education Program, also known as an IEP.

The Paralegal Shuffle – When the Attorney is Abrasive

I have worked as a paralegal in both large and small law firms. Depending on a firm’s culture, a paralegal can be treated respectfully, or – you guessed it – abrasively by a boss who is perceived to be uncaring and unrepentant with his or her demands. If you talk to other paralegals who work in your area of law, word spreads quickly as to which firms have the worst offenders when it comes to abrasive behavior meted out by attorneys. If you are a paralegal who deals with an abrasive boss on a daily basis, take heart: leaving is no longer the only option. Instead, help is available in the form of specialized coaching for abrasive individuals in your organization. If you are an attorney whose behavior is abrasive, consider this: even though you may enjoy a sterling reputation with your clients and managing partners, your staff may find your management style sorely lacking in respect and appreciation. If you don’t understand why a steady stream of paralegals and support staff seems to parade through your office, it may be time for an honest evaluation about how you are perceived by those who work for you.

Studying with The Boss Whisperer

In October, 2012 I traveled to Fairfax, VA to study with Laura Crawshaw, PhD, aka The Boss Whisperer and am now a member of the Boss Whispering Institute. Laura has a great sense of humor and has written a book, “Taming the Abrasive Manager,” which can help you if you work for or with someone who rubs you and your coworkers the wrong way. What I like most about Laura’s approach to what others call “workplace bullying” is her respectful, targeted approach to a problem that most people have no idea how to handle. I certainly didn’t until I read Laura’s book and realized that it is possible to intervene successfully to end suffering in the workplace. I highly recommend Laura’s training: it will will help you gain insight into how to foster dignity and respect within your organization and much more. As a member of The Boss Whispering Institute, you gain access to a group of like-minded individuals as well as many resources that Laura has generously shared with us.