CLOs, Empathy Training, and DEI

Empathy is essential, both for leaders and for Diversity, Equality, and Inclusiveness (DEI) initiatives. The Fall 2020 CLO Symposium had a number of excellent presentations that focused on and extolled the value of Empathy. If you have a chance, it would be worth your while to view the recordings, at Videos – Chief Learning Officer – CLO Media

But, paradoxically, focusing only on Empathy is likely to reduce the actual practice of Empathy. So, though the discussions were excellent, as an EQ professional I found two things missing. 

  1. Attention to the way other EQ (Emotional Intelligence) skills impact the use of Empathy

Some presentations left the impression that Empathy and EQ are synonymous. They are not. As important as Empathy is, EQ is much broader, comprised of sixteen different skills. Empathy is just one of them, and it doesn’t stand alone. Focusing only on Empathy is like riding a three-legged horse. You might get somewhere, but not as well, not as comfortably, and not as fast. To illustrate, let’s look at how two other EQ skills impact whether and how someone uses Empathy.

Emotional Self Awareness (ESA): Empathy is about tuning in to others people’s feelings. ESA is about tuning in to our own feelings. What does ESA have to do with Empathy you ask? The answer: A lot. 

First, it can alert us to times when Empathy is needed. Our own emotional reactions give us insight into our interactions with others that we might otherwise miss. 

For example, imagine that you are having a conversation with a colleague, perhaps a conversation that you initially believe to be casual. But you begin to feel discomfort, and realize that something is “amiss.” Noticing your emotional discomfort can alert you to the need to slow down, and “turn on” your Empathy. Essentially, your ESA would prompt you to think, “Wait a minute. I have a feeling that there’s more to this conversation than meets the eye (or ear!). I need to better understand what this person is really saying.” (The Clueless, i.e., people with low ESA, would continue the conversation cheerfully and bid the person goodbye, never realizing that they had passed up an opportunity to be helpful and caring.) Many of the leaders I’ve coached had well developed Empathy, but they didn’t use it effectively at times, because their ESA was weak, and needed work. Had coaching focused only on Empathy with these clients, and stopped there, results would have been mediocre.

Second, ESA is essential for successful DEI initiatives. Tuning in to our own feelings, especially those that may be difficult to acknowledge, can alert us to our own unconscious biases. We’ve all got some. Such biases usually arise out of the primitive part of our brains, shaped by evolution through tens of thousands of generations, and can derail the best laid DEI plans. Reacting at first on the basis of these primitive biases is a universal human reaction, one that requires the more sophisticated parts of our brains, where EQ resides, to overcome. We need to recognize when these biases have allowed us to be influenced by someone’s skin color, gender, or whatever, rather than by their ideas and other aspects of their humanity. If we don’t, they will continue to operate without our knowledge or permission, manipulating our behavior like the unseen hand inside a sock puppet. Getting past them to being truly empathic will be difficult, if not impossible.

Self Regard:  Well-developed Self Regard creates an inner sense of strength and safety. When we feel strong, we can devote less energy to protecting ourselves and spend that energy caring about the well-being of others. I have seen many leaders become much more empathic when they felt more confident about themselves and their place in the world. 

How does this play out in DEI initiatives? People with power, often “straight white guys,” may constrain the number of people they have to compete with for jobs by limiting the field to other “straight white guys.” Take out women, people of color, and LGBTQ people, and they’ve been able to reduce competitors by half or more. While this is often done unconsciously (another example of the need for ESA), the impact on those not “in the club” is the same as if it were being done consciously. 

DEI initiatives strive to open the playing field to everyone with the requisite job skills, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation/identity, or ethnicity. Strong Self Regard allows people to be comfortable competing on a level playing field, not just one that is stacked in their favor. 

2) Attention to Skill Development

While the CLO Symposium presenters did an outstanding job of identifying the importance of Empathy, there was little attention paid to how one actually helps executives develop that skill and the supporting skills necessary for it to blossom. 

“I totally get it. I do. So what’s next? Can I just start playing?”

Just telling someone that they should care about and better understand others isn’t enough to make it happen. After all, you can’t teach someone to play the piano by telling them how great music is. Most leaders know on some level that Empathy matters. But their life experiences may not have provided them with opportunities to learn the skill. 

Successful development programs provide proven methods leaders can use to build or improve their skills in Empathy, Emotional Self Awareness, Self Regard, and other EQ skills. For example, the EQ Leader Program 2.0 provides a set of fourteen exercises for building Empathy that have been field-tested with thousands of executives around the world. Exercises include ways to practice truly listening, ways to notice when you are not listening, and ways to use Empathy to create win/win outcomes when negotiating. Different exercises can be used with leaders at different stages of Empathy development. The EQ Leader Program 2.0 also provides fifteen exercises for building Self Regard and fifteen exercises for building Emotional Self Awareness.

Structured exercises that leaders can use in their daily work are essential for skill growth. It is easy to remember to use Empathy in a workshop about Empathy. It is much more difficult to remember to use Empathy when you are being bombarded by demands – the ringing phone, incessant emails/texts/Slack, worries about the next meeting, etc. With structured practice in their real world, leaders can build new, empathic default responses.

To sum up: Empathy is important, but it does not stand alone. When CLOs and CHROs look for development programs that help leaders build Empathy, they should look for programs that also understand and account for related EQ skills that impact whether and how leaders will use their newly developed Empathy skills effectively. They should also ensure that the program provides concrete, practical means to build whatever EQ skills will lead to a more effective practice of Empathy in the leader’s work environment. The EQ Leader Program 2.0 does both of these things.

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