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Adaptive Leader

The Adaptive Leader: Increasing Productivity Through Empathetic Leadership

You are responsible for your team’s output (99% of the time)

  • Poor leadership breeds poor performance
  • Disrespect your team and they will disrespect you
  • Too much emphasis on hierarchy leads to discontent
  • Empathy can be shown in a professional context and will benefit productivity and efficiency

I have worked career-long in the tech industry, from software support to my current operations role, through large-scale software companies and small agencies. I’ve been subject to and witness to a lot of different leadership styles in this time and I have come to learn what really works and what turns people off. What works for each business will of course vary, but over time I have developed a set of ground rules for team management that I find get the best from the people I work with, based on a mix of professionalism, empathy and psychology.

Rule No.1 – Mutual Respect

This one is really simple, but the one I have historically seen most poorly demonstrated. If you do not treat people with respect, you can’t expect it in return. This applies to trash talk behind someone’s back. This applies to the way you address your team and the language that you select. This applies to all the small signals you send out during your interactions with a person.

If you are holding “management meetings” where you criticise the performance of a staff member without them being present, you are telling everyone that you cannot be trusted. If you use words that demean or belittle a person even in a small way, you are telling them that you do not respect them. If you downplay or disregard someone's role or work, you are communicating that you don’t respect their abilities or contribution.

You owe it to your team to be honest and transparent with them at all times. If you have an issue with a member of your team, speak with them directly. Take the time to listen to them, and be transparent about your own situation too so that they can empathise with you in turn. Investing time in building a relationship based on trust helps everyone to feel like they are on the same side and striving for the same goals.

Choose your language carefully. Note that I use the words person and team rather than terms like employee or staff. This reinforces the idea that we are all on the same side (because we are). Don’t lace your conversations with obscenities either. While some studies have shown that intelligent people tend to use more swear words, other studies have shown that those who use profanities are likely to be perceived as being less intelligent, having less integrity, and being untrustworthy. So save the swears for watching the football, and keep your language professional in the workplace.

Rule No.2 – Be Human

You are a human being with a life outside of work, and so are your team members. Don’t expect the work you give them to be the number one priority in their lives at that moment, because realistically it’s not likely to be. This is where the concept of professional empathy comes into play.

When you ask someone to up their game or work overtime, you have to give them a good reason to want to do it well. A lot of managers might associate this solely with pay – and that certainly is a factor – but people don’t tend to be thinking about the extra money in their paycheck at the end of the month when they’re at work. They’re thinking about what’s for dinner or if they are going to make it home in time to put the kids to bed.

By recognising a person's human needs and pains, and by expressing your own, you can become much more relatable and strengthen your team relationship. A 2009 study by Oxford University found that rowers in a team have a higher level of pain endurance than individual rowers – in essence, a strong team endures together. At work, the pains might not be physical but mental or emotional, or even practical like getting home before bedtime. A leader who acknowledges these pains in their team will see greater productivity than a leader who makes demands with no consideration for their team as humans, purely because their team respects them more and wants to do a better job. Be warned though: if you aren’t sincere then your attempts to be relatable may invite a cynicism from your team that undermines your efforts.

Rule No.3 – Know Your Crowd (& Adapt to Fit)

In order to understand your team’s pains and motivations, you need to get to know them. I have seen managers who chose to sit separately in order to maintain a hierarchy, and all this did was further isolate them from the team they were supposed to be leading. The best way to get to know your team is to spend time with them on the ground, but there are additional tools that can help you understand people better and even suggest better ways of interacting with them.

A lot of companies already use psychometric tests to evaluate prospective staff, but these are used less often to help team members with their ongoing development. There are some fantastic (and free) online tools such as Crystal, which provide a combination of psychometric evaluations such as Myers-Briggs, DISC and Enneagram. By understanding a person’s unique makeup, it’s much easier to tailor your motivational and facilitation methods to get the absolute best from them.

One of my own mistakes was to assume that one method of time or task management would fit everyone, and as a result I could never find the perfect tool or process to get things done most efficiently. Now that I have more insight into the dynamics of my team based on their personality types, and have adapted my production processes and management styles to fit each person, I have a happier and more productive team.

Rule No.4 – Facilitation Over Management

This is where I see a difference between those who act as “managers” and those who act as “leaders”. A manager is typically perceived as a person who gets other people to do things, but a leader enables people to get things done. For this reason I never liked the term “project management”. I didn’t see my role as managing a project; I saw it as facilitating a team of brilliant people in order to let them do their jobs properly.

Your team are the experts, and your job is to help them do their job to the best of their abilities and with minimal disruption. This is something that comes naturally once you have shown empathy, become attuned to their needs and pains, and gained mutual respect. Then it becomes more apparent what it is that each person needs to be at their most productive. That’s not to say you need to scamper amongst your team, administering back rubs and encouragement in between handfuls of cupcakes – but that you should try to understand whether someone is more productive when given a deadline, or a task list in a different format.

The Exceptions

The truth of the matter is, you can’t motivate everyone. While investing time in building relationships works for most people, some will actively resist this style of leadership, finding it too invasive. For them, you have to know when to switch from a personal style to a strictly professional and matter-of-fact one. Once again it is about recognising the needs of the individual and tailoring your style to match. You can still be empathetic, but you have to understand that it may not always be mutual.

That said, if you struggle to achieve mutual respect, and you’re absolutely sure that you are being respectful yourself, then you may simply have a bad fit. You can’t make everyone like you, but if someone refuses to at least show you respect in return, then you might need to consider whether they are right for your team.

In Summary

If you take one thing away from this post, remember that showing empathy is not a weakness in a leader. When expressed sincerely and reinforced with solid direction and accountability, it can be your greatest strength and help your team to become a more efficient and productive unit. A team that feels respected and that works together in harmony will have a higher level of satisfaction and produce a much better quality of work, so it’s worth investing your time in building those relationships.

What are your thoughts on showing empathy to your team, or on having a team lead who uses similar methods? Have you found this works for you, or has it backfired in unexpected ways? Let us know in the comments.


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