How leaders can be empathetic & emotional without compromising professionalism

How courteous, kind, patient, empathetic & candid can leaders be with their employees? Where should they draw the line and strike a balance?

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Leaders are expected to be empathetic and kind toward their employees. To get the best performance out of those working under them, leaders have to be friendly and supportive so that their employees are encouraged to work hard and be responsible. The question is, is it possible for leaders to always appear genial?

Can leaders be empathetic and kind to their employees always? After all, leaders are human beings too. They are bound to face situations at the workplace that may test their patience and even drive them to the edge, forcing them to show their not-so-polite self. If leaders are rude and overly strict with their employees, tension can result at work, leading to larger conflicts as well.

On the other hand, if leaders go overboard with their show of empathy and kindness, they may end up making the employees too comfortable, leading to carelessness and a casual attitude. This can have an adverse effect on work and most importantly, weaken their ability to judge situations without bias.

Is there a way for leaders to be empathetic and kind in their roles while still maintaining their professional roles?

“CXOs may have broader problems to deal with, but they still have to work with other human beings —quirks, idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses et al. This is just as apparent and relevant to their success in the C Suite as it was they landed their very first managerial role.”

Amit Das, director-HR and CHRO, Bennett Coleman and Co

Rajorshi Ganguli, global head-HR, Alkem Laboratories, says, “At the end of the day, a person should be respectful to others. Situations may arise, where leaders will be required to act tough and assertive, but this shouldn’t happen at the cost of disrespecting anybody.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the leader shouldn’t be demanding. It is just that their behavior should never slide into discourtesy, explains Ganguli.

“Being assertive doesn’t necessarily mean one has to be abusive. Empathetic leaders who speak softly are also capable of being assertive. They just have to be cautious not to be too stern in their roles while interacting with the employees,” advises Ganguli.

“While leaders can show empathy and kindness during the employees’ time of need, they should otherwise interact with them in a professional manner.”

Pankaj Lochan, CHRO, Jindal Steel and Power

Paramjit Singh Nayyar, CHRO, Hero Housing Finance, says, “Being humble is a pre-requisite for a leader. For a leader, being humble is essential and not a choice. It is the bare minimum expected of a leader.”

“Leaders are often required to have uncomfortable conversations with their employees, which the latter may not like. Yet, leaders can retain their humility and continue to be respectful to them,” says Nayyar.

Even the toughest and most difficult discussions or confrontations can be handled with a smile on one’s face and a humble demeanour. This actually makes the conversation that much easier,” points out Nayyar.

“Leaders are often required to have uncomfortable conversations with their employees, which the latter may not like. Yet, leaders can retain their humility and continue to be respectful to them.”

Paramjit Singh Nayyar, CHRO, Hero Housing Finance

“Leaders are the ones who set the right stage for the culture of their organisation. If they lose humility, then it percolates down to all the employees in the organisation. It is critical for leaders to demonstrate behaviour which promotes the right culture in the organisation. Therefore, being humble at all times is critical,” asserts Nayyar.

Too much empathy can work against leaders as well, because it may raise the expectations of employees in terms of how they want to be treated. This, in turn, will interfere with their own behaviour and performance at work.

“Leaders spoil their employees by overempathising with them. Employees need stimulus for work, and they get it in the form of salary,”opines Pankaj Lochan, CHRO, Jindal Steel and Power.

“Being assertive doesn’t necessarily mean one has to be abusive. Empathetic leaders who speak softly are also capable of being assertive. They just have to be cautious not to be too stern in their roles while interacting with the employees.”

Rajorshi Ganguli, global head-HR, Alkem Laboratories

Lochan believes that while leaders can show empathy and kindness during the employees’ time of need, they should otherwise interact with them in a professional manner. Empathy should depend on the situation, and shouldn’t be an end approach to every conversation between leaders and their employees.

Amit Das, director-HR and CHRO, Bennett Coleman and Co, emphasises, “Leaders guide their teams to achieve results. Their responsibilities can be summarised in three keywords —‘guidance’, ‘team’ and ‘results’.”

According to Das, “CXOs may have broader problems to deal with, but they still have to work with other human beings —quirks, idiosyncrasies, strengths, and weaknesses et al. This is just as apparent and relevant to their success in the C Suite as it was they landed their very first managerial role.”

Recalling what he learnt from Kim Scott’s book, Radical Candour, Das talks about two dimensions that can help leaders navigate the demands of guidance, teams and results.

The first dimension is ‘care personally’. It is not enough to care only about people’s ability to perform a job. It is essential to recognise that each one of us brings our whole selves to work. This includes our stresses, pleasures, frustrations, challenges, highs and lows.

The second dimension is to ‘challenge directly’, which involves telling people when their work isn’t good enough as well as when it is. It is important to tell people when they are not going to get the promotion they want, or the new role they coveted, or when the results don’t justify further investment in what they’re working on. On the other hand, when bosses belittle employees and embarrass them publicly, or create conditions where employees dread the leader, their behaviour can be termed as ‘obnoxious aggression’. This kind of aggression sometimes gets great results in the short term but leaves a trail of carnage in its wake in the long run.

When leaders don’t care enough about a person to challenge directly, they use ‘manipulative insincerity’. This happens when they are too focused on being liked or think they can gain some sort of political advantage by faking friendliness—or when they are just too tired to care or argue anymore.

When leaders not only care about people, but equally care about organisational priorities, and therefore, challenge people when they are off track, they practice radical candour.

Therefore, leaders must be respectful towards all, be patient in their conversations, but should not be afraid to point out the issue in performance or behaviour with candour, when it impacts organisational results. Then they should guide the team to improve performance. Radical candour builds people performance, without pulling them down.

In the end, what matters is that leaders’ approach should be balanced, and never tip toward extremes on either sides. Everyone expects to be treated fairly and respectfully at the workplace, and leaders should help create a work environment that is democratic and allows freedom of expression.

At the same time, it is important to not get carried away with one’s feelings and be overly sentimental while interacting with the employees. True, leaders should never be discourteous and rude to their employees, but they should also maintain a healthy distance from them so that it gives them perspective during difficult situations and doesn’t interfere with their decision making.

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